The Inaugural International Day of the Girl Child – 11 October, 2012

Dr Amanda Bell, Principal

Yesterday, the Prime Minister launched the International Day of the Girl Child in Australia. In her speech she commented that for most Australian girls they are faced with remarkable opportunities, which is in stark contrast to girls in other countries who are not so fortunate:

Like the girl forced to work at home and watch her brother go off to school. The girl forcibly married to someone she doesn’t know before she has even come of age. Or the young woman who dwells in daily fear of violence from those closest to her. (Gillard, 2012)

Young women, including some Grammar girls, often cite a lack of identification with feminism and that leaves those of us who recall the 1970s and the achievements of the Women’s Liberation Movement somewhat despondent.  Feminism with its concern for gender equality and human rights is still very relevant today — both here in Australia and world-wide. When the F-Word: Feminism Forum was held at the Sydney Opera House in March this year, global feminism and its future was discussed. Naomi Wolf posited that the ideals of The Enlightenment, where universal human rights were core, could be a new way for feminism to find relevance once again. The concern for the plight of women and girls, their self-confidence, autonomy and right to be the person they wished to become without threat to personal safety, was profiled at the Forum, but what was missing from the debate was the pivotal role that access to education plays in any girl’s or woman’s achievement of self-advocacy and equality.

Education in most developed countries is a fundamental right, but the quality and effectiveness of the education available may not be optimal or the best it can be. There is a view that separating girls and boys for the purposes of education does not reflect the real world where men and women coexist and where conditioning young people to a single-sex environment is treated suspiciously and argued against as unhelpful for socialisation. Segregation for any reason is a complex matter and historically has been a result of cultural traditions, religious tenets, race and power structures. For any segregation based on gender there must be positive benefits, not political advantage, and education is one of the areas where segregation can hold credence.

First however, there has to be equal access to education for both boys and girls and we know this is not the case in many developing countries. A recent CNN report stated that ‘the life of a schoolgirl in Afghanistan is a far cry from reading, writing and arithmetic. Some girls have been maimed by acid attacks. Others have had their drinking water poisoned or been targeted by bombers who think females should be forbidden from school ─ as they were during the Taliban’s rule’ (Torgan, 2012). Horrifyingly, the Taliban reportedly continue to target girls and prevent their access to school:

An attempt by the Taliban to kill a 14-year old girl, famous for speaking out against the Islamic militants and their attacks on girls’ education, has triggered a wave of national revulsion in Pakistan. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck while she sat with classmates on a school bus as it prepared to drive students home after morning classes in Mingora… (Boone, 2012)

This week the Sydney Morning Herald also reported that a 14-year-old girl in Indonesia, who had been a victim of child trafficking, was expelled by her school because she had ‘tarnished the school’s image’. The importance of raising global awareness about the plight of girls through the initiative of the International Day of the Girl Child is not just timely, but long overdue.

Education is a powerful life-changing gift and extending access to girls and women can be threatening for some regimes and male dominated societies, but the benefits are demonstrably high as reported in a recent media article:

Bangladesh is actually a prime example of the returns from investing in women. When it separated from Pakistan in 1971, it was a wreck. But it invested in girls’ education, and today more than half its high school students are female — an astonishing achievement for an impoverished Muslim country. All those educated women formed the basis for Bangladesh’s garment industry. They also had fewer births: the average Bangladeshi woman now has 2.2 children, down from six in 1980. Bringing women into the mainstream also seems to have soothed extremism, which is less of a concern than in Pakistan (where female literacy in the tribal areas is only 3 per cent). (Kristof, 2012)

We now know that investing in the education of all women and especially those in developing countries has exponential benefits, ‘women put ninety per cent of their income back into their families and the well‐being of their children. And we know that a child born to a mother who can read is fifty per cent more likely to survive past the age of five’ (Bachelet, 2012). Owing to the governments and religious imperatives in many developing countries, the education of girls and women by necessity is in a single-sex environment for reasons of religion and safety. Segregation of the sexes in this context makes fundamental sense, but the idea of single-sex schooling is still hotly debated as necessary, or even warranted, in many countries where equal access is standard.

Many studies report that girls do better in single sex classes in secondary school ─ they are more confident in discussion, select more challenging subjects, take more risks with their learning, are more competitive and achieve higher comparable grades than girls in co-educational schools ─ and indeed as a generalisation girls perform better than boys in both contexts on most standardised measures (Alliance of Girls’ Schools). As Year 12 students approach their final term and look towards a future of either further study, employment, or both, it is timely to consider the strengths of single-sex contexts for young women beyond school. In December last year, the University of Essex published research which suggests that girls perform better at university when taught in single-sex classes:

Dr Patrick Nolen and Professor Alison Booth divided 800 first-year undergraduates into three groups for introductory courses in economics. At the end of the year, the average member of the girls-only group did 7.5 per cent better on her exams than those in the other groups. (Andrews, 2011)

This has implications for women undertaking university study and for college living. If young women do better academically in single-sex environments in the tertiary context as well as in the secondary context, then it could be advantageous for them to think strategically about their university tutorial compositions, group work dynamics and residential college designations to maximise their potential outcomes.

In relation to confidence and achievement, Booth and Nolen (2009) found evidence to suggest that young women seem to be shying away from competition and warned that girls who show less confidence in the classroom may be less competitive in the job market. Further, the research suggests that a girl’s schooling environment plays an important role in explaining why a girl chooses not to compete. They looked at the choices made by girls from single-sex and co-educational schools and found differences in their behaviour: girls from single-sex schools behave more competitively than girls in co-educational schools (Maccoby, 1990, 1998 cited in Booth & Nolen, 2009). The conclusions reached regarding competitiveness found that while boys choose to enter into competition more than girls, girls from single-sex schools choose to enter into competition more than girls from co-educational schools.

Other implications of their study suggest that single-sex schooling for girls can affect economically important preferences. While there might be other advantages to co-educational secondary education ─ not least in terms of socialising boys and girls and preparing them for mixed-gender tertiary colleges and workplaces ─ their analysis does serve to illustrate the importance of the school environment in affecting real economic outcomes through behavioural responses. For example, the differences in competitive behaviour they observed in girls could well have effects on future pay-negotiation skills and remuneration (Booth & Nolen, 2009).

In 2012, women working full-time in Australia earn approximately 17.5 per cent less than their male counterparts and no mother or father wants their daughter being disadvantaged economically or treated inequitably in the workplace, but they can’t advocate for them and their daughters need to be able to manage their own career negotiations. In addition to young women having the confidence to negotiate successfully, Ged Kearney (2012) writes that ‘women often talk about feeling invisible in the workplace, about being overlooked for senior roles. They need to be more assertive’. If, as the research shows, the environment of a single-sex education can help foster confidence, collaboration and competitiveness in young women, then by extrapolation they should be better placed to negotiate opportunities, remuneration, conditions and promotion in their careers.

Booth and Kee (2010) found that there was no compelling reason that performance by boys or girls at school would influence university enrolments, but the fact is that there would continue to be a gender gap in favour of women enrolled in higher education. They concluded that this was in part because of a growth in white collar and service sector jobs and the increasing prevalence of women engaged in paid work outside the home. An additional factor was the increasing financial burden for Australian families in the home mortgage market, demanding more than one income to support the household (Booth & Kee, 2010).

In Australia about 60 per cent of university undergraduates are women and more than 40 per cent of young women hold a bachelor degree or higher qualification compared to 30 per cent of young men. This should translate into successful and advantaged remuneration and careers, but not yet it seems. According to Graduate Careers Australia, the starting salaries of female graduates aged under 25 average $50,000, compared with $52,000 for men (Trounson, 2012). Therefore the pay gap exists before family commitments and mortgages come into the equation. Women and men, educators and parents, need to support our young women to have the confidence to negotiate and to know what is fair and equitable. Young women need to understand the contexts that will advantage them and look to people to support them. Mentors, both women and men, who can guide, sponsor and question them to assist with their personal and professional growth.

The Alliance of Girls’ Schools reports several studies on its website that have explored whether there are long-term benefits for girls who were educated in single-sex schools. One cited American study explored the effects of attending a girls’ high school on labor market outcomes:

Women who attended single-sex schools ‘earn a 19.7 per cent higher wage than women who attended coeducational high schools’ (Billger, 2007, p. 166). Billger concludes that there is a ‘substantial’ economic return for women who attended single-sex schools (p. 181). Linda Sax also found many post-school benefits when female graduates of single-sex high schools were surveyed: ‘all-girls schools—whether independent or Catholic-affiliated—appear to produce graduates who enter college more academically and politically engaged, as well as more confident in their mathematical and computer skills, than women from equivalent backgrounds who attend co-educational schools. Single-sex graduates are also more likely to begin college aspiring to become engineers’ (Sax, 2009, pp. 61-62).

There are many avenues in research and statistical data to explore the historical and contemporary inequities that exist for girls and women. The purpose here, as we observe the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child, is to highlight the local and global economic importance of education for girls and young women specifically. For developing countries, the health and well-being of children and the improvement of overall economic prosperity is dependent upon girls and women having equitable and safe access to education — a basic human right. For countries like Australia, where access to education is an expectation, it is rather the appreciation of the availability of the right type of educational environment that will advantage girls and women to position them confidently for success and the expectation of equality in life ─ and it would seem that single-sex contexts can provide the competitive and economic edge for them above and beyond the known academic benefits. We look forward to a world where this tailored and targeted educational choice, with its inherent advantages, are available to all girls — regardless of nationality, religion or socio-economic status.



Andrews, E (2011) All-girl classes at university ‘lead to better grades’ with some saying they are more comfortable without boys in the classroom, Mail Online, 27 December, 2011. Retrieved 21 August, 2012:


Bachelet, M (2012) Keynote speech Importance of Early Childhood Development: Policy Challenges delivered 6 June, 2012 in Montreal, Canada. Retrieved 11 September, 2012


Bastow C, Brockie J, Greer G, Griswold, E, Wolf, N (2012) Global Feminism and its Future, The F-Word: Feminism Forum, The Sydney Opera House March, 2012. Retrieved: 7 October, 2012–Word-Feminism-Forum.html


Boone, J. (2012) Outrage as girl who spoke out shot in the head, Sydney Morning Herald online 10 October, 2012. Retrieved 11 October 2012:


Booth, A & Kee, H J (2010) A Long-Run View of the University Gender Gap in Australia, IZA DP No. 4916. Retrieved: 11 September, 2012


Booth, A & Nolen, P (2009) Choosing to Compete: How Different are Girls and Boys? IZA DP No. 4027. Retrieved: 11 September, 2012


Kearney, G (2012) Your daughter will earn $1million less than your son, Mamamia online 3 September, 2012. Retrieved: 6 October, 2012


Kristof, N (2012) Women in power can be every bit as contemptible as men, The Sydney Morning Herald online 8 October, 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2012:


Gillard, J (2012) The Inaugural International Day of the Girl Child, Speech 10 October, 2012. Retrieved 11 October 2012:


The Alliance of Girls’ Schools’ website. Retrieved 8 October, 2012: The Alliance of Girls’ Schools


The Sydney Morning Herald online Raped pupil expelled for ‘tarnishing school’s image, 10 October, 2012. Retrieved 11 October, 2012:


Torgan, A (2012) Despite deadly risks, Afghan girls take brave first step, CNN online 26 September, 2012. Retrieved: 6 October, 2012


Trounson, A (2012) Women uni graduates surpass PM’s target, The Australian online 8 February, 2012. Retrieved: 6 October, 2012 uni-graduates-surpass-pms-target/story-e6frgcjx-1226265162247



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