Note: Although we refer to the schools in this story as single-gender schools, there are several all-women’s colleges who accept transgender students, as well as other non-binary students.
In movies and casual conversations, the majority of school experiences take place at coed schools.
According to Class of 2016 alumnus Michelle Wang, who attends Scripps College, an all-women’s school, this preconceived notion of what schools should look like shapes the stereotypes and negative stigmas surrounding single-gender schools.
“People tend to base what they expect out of college on coed education because that’s what most of the higher education institutions are in America,” Wang said.“I feel like the departure from that, you know, is just sort of unsettling to some people.”
There are many misconceptions associated with the shift from a stereotypical coed school to a single-gender school. College and career center advisor McKenna Parfet says that when representatives visited MVHS from Scripps and Wellesley College, both women’s colleges, they addressed the stigma that everyone attending a women’s college is a feminist who dislikes boys.
Senior Mizuki Kadowaki attended MVHS until the middle of her sophomore year before transferring to Presentation High School, a private all-girls high school in San Jose. Before attending PHS, she believed some of those misconceptions herself. Kadowaki believes one of the common misbeliefs is that the single-gender school isn’t an accurate depiction of society because a gender is missing.
“I totally understand that — I was actually skeptical at first, but [after] experiencing it for myself, I think I’m actually better prepared [for the real world],” Kadowaki said. “[The school] fosters a sense of confidence and being unapologetically myself. It’s inspiring to be part of a community of women who celebrate and support each other.”
The school appealed to her not because of the single-gender aspect, but in part because of its smaller size and close-knit community. PHS’ website cites a school size of 750, whereas MVHS’ 2017-2018 student profile cites an enrollment of 2,380 students. Scripps College’s website cites its total undergraduate enrollment in fall 2016 to be 1,039 students — less than half the size of MVHS. And although that smaller size isn’t exclusive to single-gender schools, the smaller community is one of the reasons students like Kadowaki and Wang love their schools.
Similar to Kadowaki, Wang didn’t choose to attend Scripps solely because it was an all-girls school — she chose to attend because it has a great science program. Scripps is one of the Claremont Colleges, a group of seven schools in Claremont, Calif. Through Scripps’ science department, Wang takes many coed classes with the nearby Pitzer and Claremont McKenna Colleges, and in that way, she says, has much of the same academic experiences as one would have at a coed university. But in terms of the social scene, she’s noted some differences, like the increase in female-centric activities at Scripps.
“We have days where we make face masks and sometimes it is pretty heavily gendered in such a way that you wouldn’t find at a coed college,” Wang said. “But I guess in a way, it just kind of helps everyone bring together their common interests.”
Aside from student motivations to attend women’s schools, Parfet can understand why parents would want their daughters to attend one, since the threat of assault at college campuses is typically high for women. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women are sexually assaulted in college.
“I know that if I were a parent and I knew my daughter was going to an all-women’s college or high school, I would probably have a little bit easier sense of mind, like ‘She’s safe,’” Parfet said. “Unfortunately we live in this society where … removing all the men could potentially lower the risk factor of any kind of danger, not to say women aren’t capable of that. [But] no matter where you go, there’ll be drama.”
In addition to the greater sense of community that Wang and Kadowaki have found, the single-gender environment at PHS allows Kadowaki to participate in discussions that she couldn’t have at a coed school. In classes like Government, Kadowaki says that they can discuss topics like female representation in the government in a different and a more supportive environment.
Similarly to what Kadowaki expressed about PHS, freshman Andrew Sharp, who attends the all-boys school Bellarmine College Preparatory, feels that he is more focused and comfortable at BCP. He says this is due in part to the single-gender environment, but also to the faculty.
“I like that Bellarmine has a brotherhood and that they have such amazing faculty to work with so every single teacher you have is really fun, really different,” Sharp said.
MVHS sophomore Mia Smithline, who chose to leave PHS after her freshman year and come to MVHS because she felt the environment wasn’t right for her, acknowledges that a single-gender school has its drawbacks. For one, she felt that the school had a lot of cliques. When she first visited and was too academic — lunches and free periods were always spent studying.
“I don’t think [MVHS] is necessarily better. I think it’s very different,” Smithline said. “So different that they’re not really comparable.”
Even though PHS wasn’t the perfect school for Smithline, she still considers the experience to be a valuable one.
“I learned personally that you find yourself more,” Smithline said. “I think it was a combination of it being a small community and a one-gender school, because you get to know everyone there and they get to know you and you don’t care what they think of you; you’re not trying to impress them.”
Sharp also feels that the single-gender environment has been positive for him. He says that since boys act differently around girls in comparison to how they act around each other, the all-boys environment at BCP has made him feel more comfortable than he would be at a coed school, in contrast to the cliquey feel that Smithline found at PHS.
“I feel like I could join in any [friend] group and still have a good time,” Sharp said. “I feel like because my old school was coed, there was more drama there […] here I don’t have to worry about whether this girl’s dating this guy or whatever […] I’m just myself and I can be whoever I want to be here.”
The question of dating is one that frequently comes up when it comes to the conversation surrounding single-gender schools. But Kadowaki, Wang and Sharp say that dating isn’t really much of a problem. Kadowaki says that there’s still plenty of opportunity to meet guys outside of school. Many of Wang’s classes are coed. For Sharp, attending a single-gender school is actually better in terms of dating.
“On campus you’re able to do whatever you want and not be judged and not have your reputation completely screwed over,” Sharp said. “And once you meet certain friends that are guys, they could’ve been friends with other girls that you may be interested in, let’s say. Or if you’re interested in guys, there’s a whole entire school full of that so it’s whatever you really want.”
Even though the single-gender aspect inevitably impacts their school’s environment, they all reiterate that their experiences at their respective schools consist of so much more than just that. Despite the stereotypes attached to single-gender schools, Parfet emphasizes something that these students have already realized — that the single-gender aspect is only a small part of what defines them, their school and their experiences.
“Wherever you go, there’s going to be some kind of stigma attached to you or your university,” Parfet said. “Whether it’s [a] more positive stigma or a more negative one, I think being just the person that you are and showing that you don’t belong with the stereotypes [is] the best way to combat that.”