The current practice whereby comprehensive schools place able girls as buffers between less able and badly behaved boys is indeed questionable and certainly reinforces the argument that coeducational schools are geared towards the needs of boys. It is also in no doubt that some of the strongest and most impressive academic performance is observed in girls’ schools. However, the expansion of single-sex schools will not serve to increase the number of women in science.
To attain the ideal of a 50:50 mix of men and women in the top tiers of academia boys and girls must be integrated during the vital period when lifelong attitudes to the opposite sex are formed – namely during the years of secondary education. Girls and boys must feel at ease with one another and socialise on a daily basis, with no risk of forming unrealistic expectations of the opposite sex through a limited range of mixed events including specially arranged proms. Furthermore, boys must be kept integrated with girls to ensure that they respect women and their abilities. It is worth noting that Sir Tim Hunt, who implied that women scientists are distracting sexy, attended the prestigious Dragon School at a time when it only admitted boys. There is no guarantee that this attitude towards female scientists, so widely encountered by us all, would disappear entirely if there were no boys’ schools. However, it is probable that a man would be less distracted by the presence of women, and be less likely to be so horrendously disrespectful, had he spent his formative years in a coeducational environment.
While league tables obviate that girls attending single-sex schools achieve the highest grades, absolute academic ability becomes exponentially less important as one progresses. More important becomes the ability to communicate your findings to a lay audience, to shrug off any flicker of intimidation felt in an all-male conference or industry meeting, and to play to the strengths of the members of your research team. Able girls attending comprehensive schools may fail to achieve their highest grade potential having spent the majority of their secondary education sat beside badly behaved boys. However, individuals who threaten to impede your progress, and the means by which they will attempt to do so, only multiply as you become more successful. Learning to cope with disruptive individuals, both male and female, is a vital life skill. While it is true that the top ranking female scientists are often the alma mater of prestigious girls’ schools, the majority of alumni find themselves poorly prepared for the competitive, and for the time being male-dominated, scientific environment and do not continue to excel despite an outstanding performance in school.
There are successful coeducational schools producing confident young women who choose scientific careers, so a balanced approach is possible. It is undoubtedly going to be a struggle for all comprehensives to reach this standard, but given the numerous outreach programmes available the onus is on us to play our role too.
Mary Thomas is currently in her first year of the PhD in Analytical Science as part of the Molecular Analytical Science Centre for Doctoral Training (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/mas/); her individual page here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/mas/people/students/marythomas/.
Her research project is in petroleomics, which uses high resolution mass spectrometry to characterise complex oil, fuel and environmental samples and is supervised by Dr Mark Barrow (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/chemistry/research/barrow/barrowgroup/).
She is especially interested in environmental sustainability and urban redevelopment, and chose her PhD project as it addresses some of the issues faced by these areas while making use of a Chemistry background.