All-female universities provide a vital haven

Single-sex study is declining in the West, but in many other regions it offers a space where women can thrive, says Kristen Renn

September 11, 2014

Source: James Fryer

Where co-education is predominant and preferred, these institutions stand as symbols of the need to take women seriously, on their own terms

We live in an age in which every woman in the world is legally permitted to attend a co-educational higher education institution, and that is something to celebrate.

Indeed, in many countries women overwhelmingly prefer co-education over single-sex colleges and universities. In Europe and North America, the all-female sector is shrinking, declining from several hundred colleges in the mid-1900s to fewer than 100 institutions today. Each year, a handful close their doors, decide to admit men or merge with co-educational institutions.

Yet in other regions, women’s colleges and universities remain a vital feature of the higher education landscape. They are growing in size and number in South, Central and Southeast Asia and in the Middle East. In the past decade or so, several women’s universities have opened in Africa, where single-sex tertiary education is a relatively new development.

I recently completed a study to find out what accounts for this phenomenon. Over three years, I visited 13 institutions in 10 nations on five continents. So what roles do women’s colleges and universities play in the early 21st century?

In some regions of the world, millions of girls and women live in families, communities and cultural contexts that proscribe mixed gender education, even though co-education is legally permitted. One need look no further than the terrorist attacks on schoolgirls and college women in Pakistan and Afghanistan to see the virulence of forces that align themselves against educating girls and women, even in single-sex environments. More moderate political and religious leaders tolerate and, in many cases (including in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), openly support women’s higher education within the context of gender-segregated institutions. The expansion of the all-female Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to more than 40,000 students is one example.

Even in secular democratic societies in which thousands of women attend gender-integrated elite colleges and universities, some families will not permit their daughters to study alongside men; they will keep their daughters at home rather than risk their safety, honour and reputation. Women’s colleges and universities in India, for example, provide access to higher education for students for whom co-education is not a viable option. And as in the US, some women’s colleges in India occupy the highest levels of national rankings of institutional quality and reputation. One student I met told me that even though she had been among the less than 1 per cent of applicants admitted to her institution, it was only because the college was all women that her parents would allow her to leave their rural province to study in the nation’s top-ranked programme in her field.

So women’s colleges and universities remain an essential route to post-secondary education for millions of the world’s women. Of course in many countries the capacity for higher education does not accommodate all talented potential students, and not all women or men will have the opportunity for higher study in any type of institution. For women, however, the opportunities are further constrained by religious, social and cultural forces, and all-female colleges and universities provide access.

But access to what exactly? One answer is access to a campus climate that welcomes women and supports their intellectual and personal talent and development. A second answer lies in the purposeful development of women’s leadership ability, confidence and skills. Around the world, women’s institutions take pride in their alumnae, who lead in public policy, business, the arts and civic life. And these institutions are not shy about this aspect of their mission; in my work I encountered campus mottos about “Women who will change the world” and “Preparing leaders for the 21st century”. Gender empowerment – on and off campus – is a third answer. As intellectual centres for feminist scholarship and local hubs for feminist organising, women’s institutions provide energy for their students, faculty and communities to actively support gender equality movements.

Women’s colleges and universities are counter-cultural organisations wherever they are. In contexts where co-education is predominant and preferred, they stand as symbols of the need to take women seriously, on their own terms and on their own ground. In places where single-sex education predominates and there are substantial forces organised against educating girls and women, they stand as an essential means of access to post-secondary education and as proof that progress towards gender equity may be slow but is unstoppable.

There may be a time when women’s colleges and universities are no longer the only option for some women, but even then they will still serve an important role, providing an environment in which women can learn and live free from the constant gaze of men, and grow in leadership skills, ability and confidence: a place to thrive.

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