A group of women standing in an office
Photo: Stocksy

OPINION

If all-girls schools encourage children, should we have all-women clubs as grown-ups?

All-girls schools might still play an important role in challenging gender stereotypes, argue experts. So, what can we learn from that, asks Gaby Hinsliff

Added on

By Gaby Hinsliff on

There are some things you only really know if you went to an all-girls school and one is how viscerally people respond to the words “all-girls school”.

Some are convinced it must have been – phwoar! – St Trinian’s on steroids, all hockey sticks and hormones. Others are sure it was either a tragic, nun-like existence, leaving you hopelessly ill-equipped for the modern world, or Mean Girls come to life. And yet, somehow, women-only spaces are enjoying a moment again.

Last weekend, the government’s Ofsted chief inspector for schools, Amanda Spielman, suggested that if “women are to take their full place in a world which is, to some degree, loaded against them”, then all-girls schools might still play an important role in challenging gender stereotypes, given their success in pushing girls to do maths and science. And, while there are obviously other ways of encouraging that, it seems girls are two and a half times more likely to do physics A-level when there are no boys around. Something about mixed-sex classes seems to chip away at their confidence, stop them really pushing the boundaries. Where it gets complicated, however, is after we leave school.

Women’s networks are long-established in all the major political parties and in pretty much any male-dominated industry, from the City to law, journalism and tech. And, while actresses may not have an official organisation of their own, one of the few redeeming features of the Harvey Weinstein scandal has been the sight of women supporting other women by telling their stories.

What's new, however, is the emergence of formal women-only spaces outside work, reinvented with a twist for millennials and their squads.

The case against formal women-only spaces is, of course, that they're a backwards step. Networking mainly with women can be dangerously limiting in industries where men still hold most of the senior roles

New York has The Wing, a women-only private club set up by PR Audrey Gelman, where even the books in the library are all by female authors. In London, tech entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow and publisher Anna Jones are setting up AllBright, both a members-only club for high-powered women and the beginnings of what they hope will be a broader movement – including an accelerator programme for women starting their own businesses – which Jones says is all about “having a place where you can convene a community and help with skills and confidence”.

The most surreal recent experiment with women-only spaces meanwhile was Channel Five’s show Bad Habits, Holy Orders, which sent a bunch of hard-partying young women to live in a nunnery in Norfolk for a few weeks. To everyone’s surprise, they seem to have found life in a world where they’re not constantly judged on looks and Instagram likes refreshing. Gabbi, a lingerie model and self-confessed social-media addict, said living with the sisters gave her “a new confidence and sense of purpose”. If not an actual nunnery, most of us spend at least some time in an all-female environment – whether that's a WhatsApp group or a bookclub or Pilates class – and what we get out of it often comes back to the old c-word: "confidence".

The case against formal women-only spaces is, of course, that they're a backwards step. Networking mainly with women can be dangerously limiting in industries where men still hold most of the senior roles. Setting up "safe spaces" for women within politics or corporate life can all too easily become a convenient way of keeping them away from real power.

And, obviously, it's not for everyone. Some women would still rather chew their own arm off than join an all-girls-together anything, whether it’s a hen night or co-working space. For others, this is verging on snowflake territory.

But, as Spielman argued, the problem isn’t segregation in and of itself – it's what you're using it for. When she made her remarks, Ofsted had just fought a successful court battle with an ostensibly mixed-sex Muslim school for practices including physically segregating girls and boys in all lessons and playtime, making the girls wait for their lunch until the boys had finished, and displaying books that defended marital rape and violence. That, she was arguing, is the kind of segregation we should worry about because it’s designed to reinforce cultural norms – to entrench stereotypes, not break through them.

But that's very different from giving women the choice to retreat somewhere occasionally, to a place where they can build up each other's confidence to do battle in the real world. Maybe, just maybe, separate isn't always the enemy of equal.

@gabyhinsliff

Sign up

Love this? Sign up to our Today in 3 email to receive the latest stories straight to your inbox every morning

or
Photo: Stocksy
Tagged in:
Feminism
confidence
School
young women and girls

Tap below to add
the-pool.com to your homescreen

Close