Nowadays more women attend university than men. Yet, women are still under-represented in the highest levels of technical subjects such as mathematics, physics or engineering, which eventually translates to an under-representation in high-tech sectors of the workforce. One potential mechanism to overcome this gender gap is single-sex education, that is classes which are strictly for women and classes that are only for men.
A new IZA Discussion Paper by Alison L. Booth, Lina Cardona Sosa and Patrick J. Nolen investigates the effects of single-sex classes in a randomized university experiment. The authors randomly assign students to all-female, all-male, and coed classes. The study shows that one hour a week of single-sex education benefits females: females are 7% more likely to pass their first year courses and score 10% higher in their required second year classes than their peers attending coeducational classes. Yet, the authors do not find an effect of single-sex education on the probability that a female will take technical classes and there is no effect of single-sex education for males, either.
The authors explain the positive effect on exam scores with a reduction in the so-called ‘stereotype threat’ for females. This threat work as follows: If women are exposed to the stereotype that they are worse at economics than males, they may be afraid to speak up in class in order to avoid embarrassment. Furthermore, they may face anxiety when taking tests because they have been conditioned to believe they are worse at economics. Thus, the findings of the study suggest that females enrolled in an all-female class are more willing to participate in classroom discussions and feel less pressure when taking exams.