The future of single-sex education

A man who recently applied to an all-female university in Japan has been rejected, and is now suing for damages, arguing that he has been a victim of gender discrimination and that his rejection is unconstitutional.

The man, in his 20s, applied to study nutrition at Fukuoka Women’s University, in south-western Japan. He is suing for ¥660,000 (roughly equivalent to £3,700) on the grounds that the rejection violates the constitution that stipulates gender equality and the right to receive an education. The university in question is the only public university in his area to offer the course, and as the Japanese paper, The Asahi Shimbun reported, he did not have the funds necessary to attend a private university.

Although the man is suing on the grounds of discrimination, it is for this very reason that women-only universities were introduced in the first place: to lessen discrimination and to offer women an education equal to that of men. The Fukuoka Women’s University was chartered as a university in 1950, but 65 years later, is it still necessary? Although Japan does not have the best track record for gender equality, with its highly qualified and educated women largely remaining underemployed, it has certainly made progress since 1950. However, in countries where gender equality is still an issue, single-sex universities could be seen as a hindrance or as an advantage.

The lawyer representing the man suing the women’s university, said: “In the past, women’s universities had the role of giving preferential treatment to women who had fewer opportunities for education, but that role is no longer necessary”. Although this statement clearly implies a high level of gender equality in Japan, it could be argued that the level is still an issue. Though women are more likely to have jobs in Japan nowadays, it is often still hard to balance with family life, and women are much less likely to reach the top of their chosen career path. Perhaps until this gender gap is closed further, such universities are still useful, though it could be argued that the separation of gender only perpetuates the problem.

On this topic, an official of the Fukuoka Women’s University said: “We have a 91-year history of promoting women’s education. We are determined to continue to provide education to prepare women for leadership roles.” Whether this means that men should be entirely excluded or not is another question, although the university would then face the problem of not being able to stop at letting in just one man amongst all women students.

In the UK, all-girls’ and all-boys’ schools, particularly private schools, are still relatively common, though many are beginning to introduce co-ed sixth-forms. If such schools exist and remain largely unquestioned, why is it that universities are any different? There have been studies that show that adolescents work better when they are in a single-sex school, but in a society in which gender boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, it is hard to argue that men and women should be separated in education or elsewhere. Some may argue that it in fact makes no sense to separate men and women like this in education if they are going to mix when they go into the ‘real world’, and that students may as well be prepared for this. However, it is also possible to argue that during childhood, students would be better kept separate during the important stages of maturity, but the UK in particular seems to be heading more and more towards a co-ed system.

Although it is interesting to see that a country such as Japan has reached a point where lawyers feel they can argue that all-female universities are no longer necessary, it is important to remember the advantages and disadvantages that single sex education can have for countries with less gender equality. However, as worldwide education systems become increasingly co-ed, it seems unlikely that single sex universities will reappear, for better or worse.

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