Psychologists find that gender-segregation linked to gender bias

Freya Preimesberger

Last year, Harvard instated a ban on all gender-segregated groups such as fraternities, sororities and single-gender clubs. UT research shows that this ban is well-founded — separation by gender is detrimental to students. 

Beginning with its class of 2021, Harvard University students who participate in single-gender organizations will be barred from certain leadership positions as well as Harvard endorsements for fellowships and scholarships. In a statement, Harvard president Drew Faust said the policy was enacted in order to combat discrimination and exclusion, notably in organizations such as their all-male final clubs. 

Harvard’s club sanctions were formed in response to a report published by the school’s Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention in March, which found association with final clubs was linked to an increased risk of women being sexually assaulted. 

Researchers at UT have reached similar findings. Studies conducted by psychology and women’s study professor Rebecca Bigler found that gender segregation increases gender bias from pre-K to high school.

“What that research suggested is that separating entire schools and classrooms by gender fails to increase academic achievement and also increases gender bias,” Bigler said. “Parents, teachers and the kids at single-sex schools endorsed more gender-essentialist beliefs. They say things like, ‘Girls need their own schools because girls’ brains are different from boys, and they learn math differently.’”  

According to Bigler, separation by gender perpetuates the stereotypes that women are warm and gentle while men are strong, stoic leaders. In reality, traits and behaviors exhibit highly overlapping distributions between men and women.

“When any organization is separated by gender, it makes people think there must be a reason,” Bigler said. “They think, ‘Why can’t men belong to our organization?’ That just leads to the belief that there’s something about men that makes them incompatible with our organization.”

Beth Bukoski, clinical assistant professor in UT’s Department of Education and researcher on social equity and diversity, said that women take on leadership roles in all-female environments, even though they might not in mixed environments. However, it’s not surprising that segregation increased gender-stereotypic behavior, she said.

“When you don’t have access to a group of people who are different from you, you tend to make assumptions about them,” Bukoski said. 

A few all-female groups at Harvard spoke out against the sanctions. These organizations, including those for women in science or engineering fields, claimed that they were created as safe spaces for women in the field.

“A lot of these single-gender organizations were meant to give women a sense of belonging and a space where they’re valued for who they are,” Bukoski said.

Although these organizations are meant to bolster women’s achievements in typically male-dominated fields, single-gender clubs fail to promote egalitarian gender roles well, Bigler said.

“There’s no place for the color of your skin shaping whether you can come to this institution,” Bigler said. “It’s the same thing with gender — there’s no reason to say your genitalia should shape whether you can join this organization.”