Why are we still debating the relevance of all women's higher education? One major reason is political representation; women comprise 51 percent of the U.S. population, but as of the 2012 election, we hold only 20 percent of seats in Congress. And our country is struggling to find solutions in achieving parity, as the United States ranks 79th worldwide in women's political participation.
The 2012 study "Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics" affirms there is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don't. It points to a number of factors that deter women from running for office, including women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office, female potential candidates are less confident than their male counterparts, and women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office, from anyone.
Now, how do we fix this?
Elisabeth Pfeiffer's, "Don't Like the Gender Gap? Women's Colleges Might Just Be the Answer" in the Huffington Post offers one answer: women's colleges, and I am in complete agreement. I am currently a junior at Bryn Mawr College, an all women's institution in Pennsylvania, and I have expressed similar sentiments about my positive women's college experience in the New York Times blog, "The Choice." But, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was lead to Ms. Pfeiffer's article by Shannon Miller's "Don't Like the Gender Gap? Don't Encourage It," which has been spamming my Facebook newsfeed for the past week.
Ms. Miller, a student at CMC declared,
Women cannot learn about the "female struggle" by rejecting the environment from which these struggles are born. Doing so breeds ignorance and naivety. If we endorse gender separatism by encouraging female students to attend women's colleges, we are not challenging society's gender gap. We're perpetuating it.
I respectfully disagree.
At a time when women are still so severely underrepresented in government, women's colleges do offer an antidote. A number of high profile women politicians are graduates of girl's high schools and women's colleges. Hillary Clinton, a well-known women's college graduate, says in her memoir, Living History, that her all-women's education at Wellesley College guaranteed a focus on academic achievement and extracurricular leadership that she might have missed at a co-educational college. She says on Pg. 29, "Women not only ran all the student activities-from student government to newspaper to clubs-but they felt freer to take risks, make mistakes and even fail in front of one another."
Some critics argue that women's colleges were needed in the past, when very few higher education institutions allowed women to matriculate, but as women are now the majority of students at the postsecondary level, women's colleges are no longer relevant.
I find this claim ludicrous, especially when one looks at our political climate. Women's colleges do more than just four years of educating; they have been proven to foster leadership skills and self-esteem among their students and alumnae, which is important considering lack of confidence is one of the major reasons why women do not pursue public office.
The 2007 study, "Women Students at Coeducational and Women's Colleges: How Do Their Experiences Compare?," highlights the low paternalistic culture of women's colleges, which provides students with more support to assume leadership, reward collective achievements and move beyond traditional gender roles. Compared with their counterparts at coeducational colleges and universities, women attending women's colleges exhibit greater gains in such cognitive areas as academic and intellectual development, academic involvement intellectual self-confidence and self-perceived academic ability.
Not surprisingly, students at women's colleges have been found to hold more leadership positions on campus than women at coeducational colleges. And for women students, leadership activities have been linked to a sense of competence, self-confidence, and self-esteem, and to the pursuit of nontraditional careers.
As a student at a women's college I feel as though I have garnered confidence and leadership skills through my all female environment. My freshman year I ran for and won two elected positions, freshman dorm representative and freshman class president, something I didn't have the confidence to do while in high school. At Bryn Mawr College women's leadership is encouraged and taught through workshops, and sitting at SGA meetings (our student government), it's inspiring to see women fill all elected position as it makes women in politics the norm rather than the exception.
It is foolish to discredit the power of all-women's settings in closing the gender gap, especially at a time when women in the United States are severely underrepresented politically. Women's colleges are not the only solution in achieving political parity, but they do offer one solution. And as a student at a women's college, a student that dreams of one day holding public office, I have experience firsthand a single sex institution's ability to cultivate leadership skills and foster self-esteem.