LEANING IN to Single-Sex Education (originally appeared on The Huffington Post)

So much ink has already been used up discussing one of the hottest books in recent memory, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. For that reason I was hesitant to add my two cents, even though I had many thoughts while reading the book (Not the least of which was, “Wait, I feel like I do all this, so why am I not Sandberg?!” Although, I still have nine more years to become the fifth most powerful woman in the world I suppose…). But I realized that I hadn’t read some of things I was thinking, so I wanted to share. The below piece, originally published on The Huffington Post, focuses on single-sex education as one way for young women to learn how to lean in.

I also want to add that I found it pretty egregious that Sandberg didn’t discuss Larry Summers’ 2005 remarks on women and science. I understand that he is her mentor, but it just screamed out to be addressed. I suppose it’s yet another example of why women need to lean in, but I would have appreciated hearing her perspective on the incident (more than knowing that the incident with her children and lice occurred on a private jet as opposed to commercial aircraft– since the private part didn’t really matter for her overall point).

Most of my other thoughts (besides my own personal anecdotes and experiences) have been addressed by others far more eloquent than yours truly. But I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to leave me a comment here or on Facebook/Twitter!

When people find out I’m the product of eight years of all-girls’ schooling they often ask what the best part of the experience was. I usually answer, only half-joking, “I rarely had to shave my legs.”

Lately I’ve been thinking more seriously about my single-sex education after devouring Sheryl Sandberg’s now infamous Lean In. One of Sandberg’s bigger points is that a lot of work needs to be done long before women are in careers, graduate school, or even college, in order to teach them how to lean in. Given this focus on childhood and adolescence I’m surprised that all-girls’ schools haven’t been discussed in the same breath as Sandberg’s long-term project. Based on my experience, and my research on competition, gender, and education, promoting all-girls’ education in the grade school years is a useful strategy to raise women who know how to lean in throughout life.

Cover of Lean In

In Lean In Sandberg explains that as a child she used to organize all the neighborhood children and tell them what to do. But to this day she cringes when her siblings tell this story because: “When a girl tries to lead, she is often labeled bossy. Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend.”

My professional, adult self certainly understands this sentiment, but my 13-year-old self would have been confused. At 13 I would have said that of course girls need to be bossy — who else would lead? I always thought of girls as the sports stars and the valedictorians, because at my school they were.

I took this attitude with me into high school, a building that sat next to an all-boys’ school. Some of my classes were coed. The boys came over for European history and drama, classes where I always positioned myself in the front row, preferring the “visiting” boys sit behind me. To my teenage self they were clearly infringing on my territory and I made sure I outperformed them. That confidence translated when I went next door for Latin, where I righteously covered my tests with my arm to make sure the boy sitting behind me couldn’t cheat off of me (a trick he only got away with once).

When I arrived at Harvard (also Sandberg’s alma mater) I was never afraid to raise my hand in a seminar, and I quickly learned that the best way to be heard meant jumping into the discussion and not waiting to be recognized. I credit my earlier classroom experiences for my chutzpah.

But being a social scientist I can’t help but look to the literature (incidentally, the well-researched footnotes are one of Lean In‘s strongest features, and worth a read), and that’s when the picture becomes more complicated. A 2009 study by professors at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies presented data that graduates of all-girls’ schools show stronger academic orientations, especially in math and computer skills, and higher standardized tests scores, than their coed counterparts. Other studies have acknowledged that all-girls’ education doesn’t necessarily improve academic performance, but they haven’t found that it hurts either. A well-publicized 2011 Science paper disagreed, proclaiming that single-sex education can have a long-term negative effect by promoting gender stereotypes.


Short of being able to do twin experiments (where one identical twin goes to a coed school and the other goes to a single-sex school), we may never know the precise effect of what learning in a single-sex environment does for girls. But we can know how people assess their experiences — like me and my former classmates.

Thanks in part to Sandberg and her Facebook team, I know that many of the girls I attended middle and high school with have made a variety of different choices as women: some are married, many have children, and some are stay-at-home moms while others are doctors or lawyers (one even premiered at the Metropolitan Opera this month, while still nursing her five-month-old son). We all learned as young women the hard-to-measure notion that females can be leaders in any area just by looking around us at our peers. This knowledge and the confidence that comes with it can’t be discounted.

And while we’re at it, ladies, it’s also worth remembering that shaving your legs every day isn’t a necessity — and not doing so leaves more time for all kinds of leaning in.



  1. Nancy Lo says:

    I never attended any one-sex schools, but my Chinese husband attended all male classes from 6th through 12th grade in Taiwan. He wished afterwards that he had been in co-ed classes, for when he got to the age when he decided he liked girls, he didn’t know how to interact with them. He says the first time he talked to one, he was literally shaking with anxiety! He obviously blames this on his segregated schooling. He had sisters, so it wasn’t as though he was never around girls, but sisters don’t count, I guess. He later did learn how to interact with the opposite sex, which might explain why he relates this story with an air of amusement.

    Maybe in this country, the boys in all male classes don’t duplicate his experience.

    He didn’t know how the girls felt about interacting with boys, but I have the feeling that the girls had more confidence in their ability to relate to the opposite sex all along. Maybe they sensed they had the upper hand. I don’t know many Chinese immigrant wives today who don’t stand up to their husbands. I think they learned equality pretty well, and in some cases, they now rule the roost in my observation. Whether they are leaders or just bossy, I don’t know!

    • The impact does seem to be different for men than women- not just in the academic sense but also in the social sense, as you mention. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy!

  2. Great article Hilary Levey Friedman! Proud to say I am one your classmate who found my single-sex education infinitely beneficial and taught me to always lean in – especially “in” to the microphone on the comedy stage. And I still don’t shave my legs everyday…
    Leaning In to Single-Sex Education
    We all learned as young women the hard-to-measure notion that females can be leaders in any area just by looking around us at our peers. This knowledge and the confidence that comes with it can’t be discounted.
    1Unlike · · Share

    You, Alexis Spiro Bailey, Rebecca Pearson Casciano, Mary Spiro Tiseo and 8 others like this.
    Hilary Levey Friedman Thanks! I think I’ll skip shaving tomorrow, too. Who cares about Brother Rice guys, right?!
    Wednesday at 10:09pm · Like · 2
    Patrick E. Lynch HH, I am so proud of you and your classmates. I always enjoy reading your thoughtful insights.
    22 hours ago · Like
    Jon Ruud Well written Hilary and precisely the reason I sent 3 girls to Marian. I might skip shaving myself for a couple of days!!!
    19 hours ago · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman Grateful that Marian connected me with both of your daughters!
    18 hours ago · Like

  3. Alix Reisinger Kosobucki, Naomi Schneider, Caitlin Lynch and 8 others like this.
    Leslie Lehr Excellent article in the Atlantic, too. I’m sending it to my college daughter…
    Wednesday at 9:52pm · Unlike · 1
    Kathryn Beaumont Murphy Good point
    Wednesday at 10:06pm via mobile · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman Summers or all-girls schools?
    Wednesday at 10:08pm · Like
    Kathryn Beaumont Murphy Summers
    Wednesday at 10:25pm via mobile · Unlike · 1
    Elizabeth Kaczmarek Griffith Hilary, I talk about this concept at work frequently. At Marian, the girls were the best athletes, the presidents, the most popular, the smartest, etc. Why shouldn’t they be at my company too? It really does change your mind set for life, I think.
    23 hours ago via mobile · Like · 2
    Hilary Levey Friedman Thanks, Liz! It seems on HuffPo some people think I’m proposing a Saudi regime. Oh well, you can’t win them all. And, go you– run that company someday (soon).
    23 hours ago · Like
    Julie Livingston Thanks for weighing in. I’m reading Lean In now and am a bit underwhelmed, moreso re: the writing style, but I still have a way to go. Would love your perspective.
    20 hours ago · Like
    Elizabeth Kaczmarek Griffith My experience is that the huffpo commentators are probably really liberal and don’t understand that all girls schools can be too. The concept seems antiquated but in reality and in practice it is not. It is liberating. Who wouldn’t want their daughter to be a leader.
    20 hours ago via mobile · Like
    Hilary Levey Friedman @Julie, it’s certainly not scintillating, but it is a lot clearer and direct than a lot of other books in this genre. And the footnotes really are great (though that gives you a sense of where I am coming from– ha!). @Liz, the moms of the boys here agree. We just need some girls to send to a Marian-like school someday…
    18 hours ago · Like

  4. Had to share this article by my friend and fellow Marian Mustang, Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman – and I absolutely agree with her assessment of the benefits of an all-girls education. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Marian, and am amazed by the many achievements of my former classmates!
    Leaning In to Single-Sex Education
    We all learned as young women the hard-to-measure notion that females can be leaders in any area just by looking around us at our peers. This knowledge and the confidence that comes with it can’t be discounted.
    Author: Hilary Levey Friedman
    Unlike · · Share

    You like this.
    Hilary Levey Friedman Thanks so much- means a lot to me!
    Wednesday at 9:31pm · Like
    Allison Medlin You rock Hilary! I’m excited about your upcoming book too!
    19 hours ago · Like

  5. Hilary Levey Friedman likes an article on The Huffington Post.
    Leaning In to Single-Sex Education
    We all learned as young women the hard-to-measure notion that females can be leaders in any area just by looking around us at our peers. This knowledge and the confidence that comes with it can’t be discounted.
    Author: Hilary Levey Friedman
    Like · · Unfollow Post · Share · Promote

    Naomi Schneider, Barbara Joseph Jones, Tara Humann Delaney and 5 others like this.
    Celia Jones Fetsch Love this!
    Wednesday at 8:26pm · Unlike · 1
    Alexis Spiro Bailey Fantastic, Hilary!! I will forever be an advocate of single-sex education because of my years at Marian…I am so thankful to my parents for sending my sisters and I there!
    Wednesday at 8:41pm · Unlike · 3
    Jennifer Hellickson This is terrific!
    Wednesday at 9:03pm via mobile · Like

Speak Your Mind