Sex Segregation in Schools

Maria Charles and Karen Bradley (2009) found evidence for sex segregation by field of study, particularly in advanced industrial societies. While this segregation is often thought to be a resultant of “free choices by autonomous, but fundamentally gendered individuals” (p. 961)—an actualizing of the “different but equal” gender narrative—the authors argue that sex segregation is a resultant of the structural features of both the modern educational systems and labor markets which promote the “cultivation, realization, and display” (p. 924) of gender-specificity in fields of study and career paths. For example, I remember being in Grade 11, about to take my O Levels exam, when my Economics teacher told me that I shouldn’t put in too much effort into studying because Economics was not a field for girls to pursue. My world distinction in O Level Economics did not change his mind (although I do hope it forced him to re-think his worldview).

The gendering of areas of study can guide students’ educational and occupational decisions, and in doing so, reproduce and strengthen inequalities already present in society. The authors note how “separate but equal” allocational principles rarely work well in practice, especially when power differentials come into play (p. 961).

Research suggests that educational attainment in female-dominated fields (e.g. humanities, social sciences) translates into significantly lower incomes than male-dominated fields (e.g. technology, science). If female students are continued to be socialized into believing that they are only capable of pursuing degrees in female-dominated subjects, which yield lower incomes, gendered inequalities are continually and silently reinforced. Thus, one’s gender identity can be essential in determining which educational opportunities are encouraged and perceived as available to attain. In doing so, female-identifying students may be limited to low-income areas of study and work through sex segregation. In this way, schools become responsible for reproducing, perhaps even exacerbating, inequalities through their socialization processes.

While schools can indeed be a source of equalizing inequalities present in society, it is important to account for the range of opportunity and experiences available to students and how identity and demographic variables may complicate the simplicity of the compensatory role of schools (Downey and Condron, 2016). One’s identity can impact the access they have to social and cultural capital, their experience of school and likelihood to be at-risk, as well as the educational and occupational pathways they are encouraged to follow or limited to. These can all result in varying levels of educational attainment and achievement, and in doing so, can provide difficulties for schools in fulfilling their equalizing property.


Work Cited

  1. Charles, Maria and Karen Bradley. 2009. “Indulging Our Gendered Selves? Sex Segregation by Field of Study in 44 Countries.” American Journal of Sociology, 114(4): 924-976.

  2. Downey, Douglas B., and Dennis J. Condron. 2016. "Fifty Years since the Coleman Report Rethinking the Relationship between Schools and Inequality." Sociology of Education, 89(3): 207-220.

Last Fact Checked on May 22nd, 2021.