In that oft-quoted scene from Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan’s voiceover describes Cady Heron’s classroom interactions with the dim but studly Aaron Samuels: “On October 3rd, he asked me what day it was.” Thus begins Cady’s descent from straight As to Fs, from math whiz to stereotypical dumb girl, all for the sake of impressing a guy.
Imagine how differently that scene, and that whole movie, would have played out if Cady had gone to an all-girls school. I’ll tell you one thing—it would have been a lot less dramatic.
The argument in favor of single-sex education has long been based around the sexual attraction between the genders; in a critical period of growing up, when hormones are raging and hemlines are rising, it’s best to keep them in separate cages. And this is true in many regards—Cady would have paid more attention if Aaron’s hair hadn’t been between her and the chalkboard, and everyone knows the average teenage boy’s attention span is inversely related to the number of boobs in the room. While this line of thought doesn’t hold water in many situations—think LGBT students—there are numerous other reasons why the best high school experience, particularly for girls, is one with single-sex classrooms.
There’s a stereotype we all know about genders and academics: Men are better at mathematics and hard sciences. But the idea that women can’t do math is one I had never considered, had never even heard of, before coming to Georgetown. Here, I’ve been asked what it’s like to be a girl and a Math major, if I feel outnumbered or intimidated by my male peers.
My ignorance of this harmful stereotype is all thanks to my high school, an all-girls, Catholic institution. In the single-sex environment, the dynamics are familiar: there are class clowns, popular kids, jocks, nerds, and the like. The difference is that every one of those roles is occupied by a girl. The kid who sat in the back and made snide remarks, the one who spent the whole period looking in a mirror, and the one who answered every question right were all teenage girls, all wearing sweaters, collared shirts, and hideous plaid skirts. There, I wasn’t a girl who was good at math; I was just good at math.
This may seem like a small distinction, but consider this: researchers at University of Arizona found earlier this year that female scientists—accomplished, talented, Ph.D.-holding scientists—felt less engaged with their research and abilities after conversing with male colleagues, and were much more likely to drop out of their programs than men.
Obviously, the real world is chock full of men, and nobody is advocating for same-sex workplaces or graduate programs. But in those formative high school years, when your ego, confidence, and sense of self are being established, it’s better in an environment where you aren’t constantly being reminded by peers, teachers, and administrators that being an intelligent, academically accomplished girl is at best unattractive and at worst impossible.
This is where Cady Heron becomes a cautionary tale. Yes, she’s fictional, but Mean Girls wouldn’t resonate as much as it does if it didn’t draw on the real American high school experience. Frankly, I felt the same way Cady did in interactions with a guy I was interested in, who also happened to be pretty awful at math. He asked me how I was doing in calculus, and suddenly I was embarrassed to tell him. How will he ever think I’m cute if I’m better at math than he is? Luckily for me, this guy wasn’t in my classes; I didn’t have to get Cs to impress him, and I didn’t waste my time trying get him to walk in on his girlfriend hooking up with Shane Oman in the projection room.
For those who worry that single-sex education might lead to a culture shock when, in college, suddenly those weird creatures with big feet and hair on their faces are not only sitting next to you in class but living next to you in your dorm, keep in mind that single-sex education doesn’t mean a single-sex life. I had a healthy number of male friends in high school, and my classmates never had a shortage of boyfriends/hookups/suitors to gossip about at the lunch table (I may not have done that well in the boy department, but that’s a different piece to write).
And that’s the beauty of single-sex education. In many ways, the nuns and the old-fashioned are right—teenagers and hormones go together like candy canes and Glen Coco. They’re going to date, they’re going to hook up, they’re going to cheat, and they’re going to get very wrapped up in lots of needless drama. But stereotypes aren’t axioms, they’re constructions, and if girls in their formative years avoid an attitude which tells them that they can’t or shouldn’t do something they’re good at, then our schools, our science programs, and our progress as a civilization will be better off for it.