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From the Field

Girls-Only Sport

Looking Back on a Swiss School Experiment

Against a backdrop of gender inequalities at school, an experiment in the field of physical education shows that sports classes in single-sex groups allows students room to maneuver in relation to gender norms, albeit without completely eliminating them.

Internationally, in the face of continuing gender inequalities in schools, co-education in schools is once again being debated. In various countries (Canada, South Korea, Australia, United States), the return of single-sex schools is considered one of the strategies likely to offer the same chances and opportunities to girls and boys. In the United States, following the passing of the Single-Sex Regulation (2006), the number of schools and classes that separate girls and boys has increased significantly, in both the private and the public sectors. In Europe, under the impetus of the European Association of Single-Sex Education (EASSE) in particular, non-mixity in the form of single-sex education is present in the UK and Ireland, but also in Spain and Switzerland, where pilot experiments have been developed. The separation of the sexes in schools—sometimes described as a new educational option, sometimes decried and seen more as a regression—has been accompanied by numerous controversies. Based on a qualitative survey involving interviews and observations (Bréau 2018) conducted among teenage boys and girls (aged 14 to 15) enrolled in physical education (PE) classes in French-speaking Switzerland, this article seeks to understand the effects of non-mixity on students’ education. By adopting the “doing gender” approach, which defines gender as an action (West and Zimmerman 1987), the aim of this work was to identify the ways in which students “do gender” in order to gauge the degree of change in norms of masculinity and femininity in a single-sex context.

Non-mixity at school: a new tool for combating inequalities

Although co-education is often perceived as a symbol of mixing and enrichment, in schools it does not de facto produce gender equality. Numerous studies have highlighted the presence of hidden sexism, both in the teaching content (textbooks) and in the interactions between students or with teachers. Hidden sexism refers in particular to the many gender stereotypes that accompany students’ school careers. Thus, "teachers’ belief in the superiority of boys in mathematics and girls in literature is detected as early as elementary school, even though differences in performance are non-existent" (Marry 2003, p. 8). In mathematics, for example, analysis of classroom interactions reveals that girls receive less encouragement to find the right answer and have less time to respond, differences that tend to increase with age and become even more pronounced at the secondary level. In the classroom, students thus have access to different school experiences depending on their gender. A real "stopper" for gender diversity, the issue of career guidance is, at the end of schooling, the main witness to the difficulties encountered by the principle of coeducation, because of the gendered division of career guidance (Vouillot 2010, p. 59).

In order to combat a coeducational school described as a "guidance agency that reproduces gendered flows" (Duru-Bellat 2008, p. 139), the introduction of non-mixed schools, either in general (separate schools) or only in certain disciplines, has two main aims. On the one hand, the aim is to combat gender stereotypes. The aim of gender separation is to enable girls and boys not to remain locked into preconceived models of femininity and masculinity and to be able to fully engage in different roles in all school subjects (scientific subjects and PE for girls; literary and artistic subjects for boys). According to a report by the European Network on Education Systems (Eurydice 2010), single-sex aims to give "girls and boys greater freedom to choose subjects that are not associated with their gender" (p. 91). In the United States, where the idea that single-sex education is effective in combating gender stereotypes is the leitmotif of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), feminist groups (see, for example, Salomane 2004) advocate a return to single-sex education, whether partial or total, in order to promote girls’ performance in mathematics and physics, and, later, a move towards science subjects (Duru-Bellat 2010).

On the other hand, in the face of gender-based violence identified in coeducational settings, segregated instruction is also sometimes envisioned as a space of protection for women, aiming to limit the emergence of taunts and remarks seen as gendered callbacks. Non-mixing is thus intended to create a "space where girls can move more freely...without fear of their bodies being judged" by boys (Azzarito and Hill 2013, p. 354 [1]).

These ambitious goals, however, suffer from a lack of scientific support and are primarily fueled by testimonials and anecdotes shared by teachers, principals, or parents of students. Few works on gender separation in PE report heterogeneous, even contradictory results (Bréau, Lentillon-Kaestner, and Hauw 2016; Pahlke, Hyde, and Allison 2014).

Separating the sexes in PE: experiments in question

In PE, the question of mixed or separate teaching occupies an important place and is frequently debated within teaching practices. By placing the students’ bodies at the center of learning, and by relying on sports and artistic practices that refer to social representations of masculinity and femininity, PE occupies a unique place in the construction of gender. For Couchot-Schiex, PE classes at school indeed provide students with the opportunity to make "comparisons", both from a point of view of "physical performance and bodily appearance [...] thus creating a hierarchical positioning between students, first between the sexes and then within each gendered category" (2017, p. 71). As a direct result of educational policies or teacher choices, the implementation of separate classes can be seen as a strategy to reduce inequalities and the more numerous difficulties encountered by girls. Following the example of England, Belgium and Finland, such experiments are being conducted in Switzerland, where co-education is not compulsory on a national scale. Depending on the canton, or even the school, the teaching of this discipline takes very different forms and is above all part of a local policy. In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, the principle of gender neutrality at the secondary level was recently recommended in an official text (Plan d’études Lerhplan 21), which provides didactic guidelines for teachers.

Non-mixity: a space of freedom and resistance to male domination…

Firstly, our survey underlines that, for girls, non-mixity tends to represent an effective option insofar as it offers a margin of manoeuvre in relation to the usual gender norms. [In team sports, this is seen first of all in the possibility of directly accessing the first roles and no longer having to wait on the bench before being chosen for a team. It is also seen through a game without fear and the possibility of missing a shot without being excluded from the game or of going into contact without getting hurt. Separated from the teenagers and no longer having to deal with the "boys’ law" often identified in mixed-gender contexts (Patinet-Bienaimé and Cogérino 2011, p. 3), girls feel freer and can thus invest more time and rehearse without fear of being teased. The absence of boys from the classroom gives them the opportunity to be at the heart of the game, touching the ball and going beyond the status of mere spectators. The sense of usefulness within the team, which is essential for investment and self-improvement, is mentioned in a separate context and contrasts with the surveys conducted in mixed classes, where the girls are described as being in the background and sometimes invisible.

In single-sex classrooms, girls have also seen a decline in competitive practices and the possibility of evolving in a space that they describe as more cooperative. This is illustrated in particular via typical activities, such as playing without counting the score, applauding each other, congratulating each other collectively, or taking the time to do artistic activities. This observation reflects a desire on the part of adolescent girls to distance themselves from confrontational situations and to detach themselves from the pressure of the virile and competitive norms that boys tend to impose in a mixed context. Remarks such as "this is not a boys’ place" or "we don’t care who wins" illustrated this relative detachment. During the PE sessions, the practices of negotiation with the teacher in the choice of activity or the redefinition of the instructions (stop counting the score, refuse to make a classification at the end of the games) also participate in the definition of a practice that is meant to be playful. On the other hand, in the boys’ class, the survey allowed us to observe the emergence of competitive situations (refusing to lose at all costs, cheating) and masculine situations (shooting hard without controlling oneself, hiding one’s pain) within a single-sex PE defined by the adolescents as a "real game", free of all constraints. Throughout the year, despite the teacher’s desire not to reduce PE classes to moments of confrontation (teaching artistic activities, proposing cooperative work in volleyball), the search for duels and competitive challenges was maintained among the students.

… but also of reproduction of gender hierarchies

Thus, the identification among students of different modes of engagement, which tend to oppose girls’ PE to boys’ PE, leads us to emphasize that single-sex classes can also contribute to reproducing processes of domination and hierarchization. On the boys’ side, the implicit separation of the class into two groups, the sportsmen versus the others, and the mockery directed at the less successful adolescents or those with a taste for artistic activities, testify to the violence exercised against those who do not meet the ideals of a "hegemonic" masculinity (competition, aggressiveness, muscular body) (Connell 1995), which is particularly prevalent in the sports world.

Among girls, despite the broadening of the repertoires of action described above, the calls to order among students and the exclusions suffered by those who "pull too hard" or who are "too competitive", and who ultimately display behaviors judged by others to be "masculine", also contribute to the maintenance of relationships of domination. If non-mixity offers adolescent girls the opportunity to "occupy the leading roles" left vacant by the boys, it also encourages the emergence of processes of exclusion, division and hierarchies between sub-groups of students. The difficulties encountered by sports girls, described by others as "tomboys," confirm the reproduction of gender norms. Wanting to be competitive, clenching their fists after a win, or pulling hard on their opponents are all behaviors that run the risk of being judged and labeled as not conforming to the codes of femininity present in the classroom and more generally in effect during adolescence (Lentillon 2009).

Ultimately, in both the girls’ and the boys’ classrooms, the class group influences the weight of gender norms, for example by offering an alternative space to male domination in the girls’ class or by encouraging the maintenance of competitive situations among the boys. Within these single-sex spaces, the hierarchization and stigmatization of deviance (against boys who are not man enough and girls described as "tomboys") also confirm that the separation of the sexes, as a pedagogical space, does not stop the ordinary functioning of gender relations.

Through their behaviors and actions, and through the dynamics established in the classroom, teachers contribute to combating these norms (by proposing a varied program of activities, by encouraging cooperative work in the boys’ class) or to reinforcing them. In the boys’ class, for example, the endurance tests conducted at the beginning of the year and the volleyball court ranking system set up by the teacher encouraged the emergence of hierarchies among the students. For the girls, the lack of vigilance on the part of the teachers concerning the results of the matches contributed to the maintenance of a playful and not very serious game and to the development of frustrations among some students. In order to avoid this type of complicity between teaching action and the maintenance of gender stereotypes, the development of gender competence, characterized in particular by knowledge about gender relations and the norms likely to accompany mixed and single-sex practices, is a particularly rich avenue for reflection (Wrench and Garret 2017). Other scientific studies, more focused on teachers’ activity or using a different methodology (via quantitative studies, for example) could provide another perspective and complement these case analyses.


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To cite this article:

Antoine Bréau & translated by Oliver Waine, “Girls-Only Sport. Looking Back on a Swiss School Experiment”, Metropolitics, 26 May 2023. URL :

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