Gender-segregated social life is hurting today’s college students

When we separate people according to gender, we wind up reinforcing gender norms.
When we separate people according to gender, we wind up reinforcing gender norms.
Image: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As Harvard University students kick off a new school year, they find themselves at the center of a heated debate about one of higher education’s longest-standing traditions: gender-segregated social life.

The university announced in May that, starting with Harvard’s class of 2021, it will effectively ban students from participating in clubs that exclude people of other genders. The move is intended primarily to force the integration of women into Harvard’s finals clubs, the exclusive groups that dominate much of campus social life and serve as powerful networks for members and alumni.

But the new policy will apply to sororities, fraternities, and other single-gender clubs as well. That’s upset some critics, who argue that the decision will end up penalizing women-only spaces, which offer young female students unique sources of support and community.

Such concerns are understandable. But there are good reasons for both men and women to support the university administration’s ban—not least because we might all be better off if we stop dividing our social lives along gender lines.

Separating groups by gender inevitably affects the way we perceive each other and ourselves, according to Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a book on how society shapes differences between young girls and boys.

“It’s simple math; the more time you spend with people of the same gender, the more similar you will become to each other and the more different you will become from the other,” Eliot says.

Research has shown that men and women do not fundamentally differ in personality, cognitive ability or leadership skills. Boys and girls begin development with equivalent ability in math and exhibit similar levels of assertiveness and competitiveness. But differences become more profound as children are socialized to exhibit contrasting characteristics, says Eliot.

According to one meta-analysis, boys and girls test equally high in math until high school, when boys begin to slightly out-perform girls. This difference has less to do with innate ability, and more to do with the way female and male students are treated in middle and high school, according to many psychologists.

“Nature is just a little tip, a little bias in one direction,” Eliot says. “Most of the gender differences are learned, are societal and shaped through culture, and a huge part of that culture is gender-specific grouping.”

The fact that we consistently divide people along gender lines creates powerful biases, according to psychologist Rebecca Bigler of the University of Texas, who has been studying gender for two decades. In one study, Bigler had teachers split students into red and blue shirt categories to simulate the arbitrary ways in which gender differentiates girls from boys. Bigler found that, after four weeks, students had formed powerful alliances according to their separate factions. Reds were more likely to have a high opinion of reds, and blues were more likely to have a high opinion of blues.

“We found that when the teachers labeled those groups, just like in the case of gender, the kids became biased,” Bigler told Michigan Radio.

The process of gender socialization doesn’t stop as we get older. While coed colleges are now the norm in the US, some social spaces on campus remain gender-segregated. Sororities and fraternities in particular have proved to be an enduring tradition.

Many loyal Greek members note that their individual fraternities and sororities defy stereotypes. But in the popular imagination and pop culture, fraternity brothers are boisterous, rowdy, beer-swigging paragons of masculinity. Think Animal House and Old School.  Sorority sisters, meanwhile, have a reputation for being peppy, flirty, and concerned with traditionally feminine pursuits like makeup and fashion.

These stereotypes are not based on innate gender traits, and many college students involved in Greek life buck such conventions. But the very act of dividing young men and women into separate groups may push them—sometimes unintentionally—to conform to prescribed gender norms.

Moreover, psychology suggests that the more people identify with characteristics associated with their gender, the more likely they are to think of the other gender as profoundly different—reinforcing the idea that men and women cannot hope to understand one another. As psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde notes, communication between men and women is often hampered by the belief they have irreconcilable points of view. This problem has major repercussions for the success of personal relationships or workplace equality.

If other schools follow Harvard’s lead and do away with single-gender social clubs, they may well put students on the path to better understanding and empathizing with one another. The policy could help combat on-campus rape and sexual assault, too. As neuroscientist Eliot writes in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, “If your pledged ‘siblings’ include both brothers and sisters, chances are greater you won’t objectify and molest each other than if the other sex is some distant, deeply different species to be conquered by the end of a wild evening.”

Mixed-gender groups may also be more effective at promoting women’s issues. Peggy Klaus, an executive coach and leader of corporate training programs, makes such a case in another recent Times op-ed. Klaus argues that women’s leadership conferences often wind up being futile when they exclude men. That’s because, particularly in traditionally male-dominated industries, men are more likely to be in the kinds of powerful positions that could facilitate greater gender equality.

“Expecting biases and policies to change based on occasional training and motivational speeches is simply ridiculous,” Klaus writes. “So is making women the sole torchbearers for changing the culture.”

The same logic could apply to women’s leadership groups such as Harvard’s Seneca, for example, a group founded in 1999 with the explicit purpose of creating a strong network of female students and helping them to pursue leadership roles on campus. Undoubtedly, many women benefit immensely from this kind of atmosphere. But it’s also possible that an organization with a mission to challenge sexist standards may benefit from having men around.

It’s unrealistic and ineffective—not to mention unfair—to expect female students to shoulder the entire burden of changing culture norms on campus. Male students can and should help the effort by holding themselves and others to higher standards.

None of this is meant to diminish the importance of women’s spaces. But it’s also true that gender-segregated groups do not reflect the realities of the world we live in. And they also frequently fail to make room for individuals who fall somewhere along the gender spectrum, instead confining campus communities to a binary system.

Consciously or not, college groups based on gender can wind up emphasizing and reinforcing differences. If we want real gender equality, we could start by spending more time together rather than apart.