What Does Mike Pence’s ‘No Girls Allowed’ Rule Have in Common With School Dress Codes and Single-Sex Classrooms? Exclusion, Shaming, and Victim-Blaming.

Of all the shockingly retrograde views about gender that the past year has brought us, a top contender is the revelation of Mike Pence’s policy of refusing to dine with women unless his wife is present.

As commentators have been swift to point out, 
this policy is deeply problematic. It reduces women to the role of temptress, blaming them for male transgressions from marital infidelity to sexual assault, while relying on the equally demeaning assumption that men are incapable of controlling their sexual impulses. It is also discriminatory in the context of the workplace, depriving female employees of critical opportunities for networking, mentoring, and face time.

Discrimination under the guise of chivalry — sometimes called “benign protectionism” — is hardly new. Women have been “protected out” of jobs and educational opportunities … well, pretty much forever. Laws against sex discrimination have eradicated some of the most blatant examples, like policies prohibiting women from entering certain professions or excluding women and girls from educational institutions. But as Pence’s “No Girls Allowed” rule shows, these archaic views about gender persist.

Unfortunately, benign protectionism not only runs deep, it also starts early. Here are some examples of how these attitudes still play out in the school context today, in surprisingly blatant ways.

Perhaps the most common example is the use of school dress codes that impose different standards based on sex. These may sound benign initially, but they rest on some of the exact same attitudes and stereotypes epitomized in Pence’s personal policy.

The ACLU is currently 
challenging a dress code at a K-8 public charter school in North Carolina that requires girls to wear skirts and prohibits them from wearing pants. As the school’s founder, Baker Mitchell, explained, the requirement was instituted “to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.” In his deposition, Mitchell elaborated further on the meaning of chivalry in this context: A woman is “regarded as a fragile vessel that men are supposed to take care of and honor.” (Meanwhile, a school board member argued that the requirement would prepare students for a workplace where they might have to follow gendered dress codes, providing as his first example the restaurant chain Hooters — a vision of “respect” that is perhaps more Trumpian than Pencian).

Discrimination under the guise of chivalry — sometimes called “benign protectionism” — is hardly new.

Our clients argue that the skirt requirement leaves them uncomfortably cold in the winter time, distracts them during class for fear of boys looking up their skirts, and inhibits them from engaging in activities during recess like playing soccer, climbing the monkey bars, and doing cartwheels, all for fear of showing their underwear or being reprimanded for being unladylike. That our clients would rather be treated as kids than “fragile vessels” has apparently not swayed the school administration.

Just last week, a federal judge rejected the school’s request to dismiss the case, finding that our clients had valid claims for sex discrimination under both Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in public schools, and the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. This builds on similar victories in ACLU cases challenging gendered dress codes for special events like prom and yearbook photos.

Even when dress codes seem gender-neutral, they are frequently used to police girls’ bodies — sending the message that girls are a “distraction” to boys or men. They are often disparately enforced against girls, students of color, LGBT students, or students of different sizes. And enforcement means students may be sent home from school or forced to “cover up” — in other words, excluded, shamed, and victim-blamed.

Perhaps the most literal reflection of Pence’s policy in action is the current trend of separating boys from girls in coed schools into single-sex classrooms. Despite the lack of valid evidence of efficacy in improving outcomes, this model is presented as a panacea for a host of social woes, from gender-based harassment to high disciplinary incidents to low academic performance to high rates of teenage pregnancy. The justification should sound familiar: Teenage boys simply can’t concentrate on academics when girls are present.

Because this strategy is disproportionately implemented in communities of color, racial stereotypes play a role as well: The implication is that boys and girls of color are uniquely unable to succeed in a coed environment. The proposed solution is not to equip girls and boys to collaborate, learn, and work as equals, but rather it is to exclude the (overly sexualized) girls from the classroom altogether so the (out-of-control) boys can focus.

These stereotyped attitudes violate the law when they play out in schools funded by taxpayer dollars — and we don’t intend to sit idly by. As for Vice President Pence, if his policy of excluding, blaming, and shaming women is reflected in either White House employment practices or educational policy initiatives, we may well see him in court.

If you or your child has been targeted by a discriminatory dress code or separated from their peers in a single-sex classroom, we want to hear from you.  Tell us your story

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Anonymous

As an alum for an all-boys Catholic school, I can honestly say that it does nothing to help boys pay attention and only further perpetuates toxic masculinity. It's like "hey it's okay to insult women because there's none here, so lets futher over-sexualize girls and treat them more like objects than actual human beings."

Anonymous

I grew up in the UK and attended an all girls state school (it did however admit boys for A levels, the last 2 years). Our school had some of the best test scores in the area. The biggest achievement gap however, was in comparing our STEM results to those of girls attending the other schools in the area. It could be put down to a number of things. Do teachers of STEM who choose to teach at a girl's school feel more strongly about encouraging their female students to engage with the subject and push it more as a valid career path for girls? Is it the lack (in school at least) of subtle or overt messages that these are boys' subjects during what appears to be the most critical time for holding girls' interest in STEM? Did a combination of the lack of individual attention in mixed schools mentioned above, plus implicit bias on the teacher's part cause the scores of girls in mixed schools to suffer? Were our teachers better supported and exceptional in general? Or selection bias? Given the school's reputation, were parents of girls already showing an aptitude for STEM more likely to apply? Whatever the reason, I and all those I stayed in touch with did fine at University taking classes in a mixed setting.

Anonymous

i went to a single sex school and it did nothing but create other distractions.. and the whole system was very Pencesque

Anonymous

So for a bisexual student such as myself... should I have been isolated to a classroom of one since I could be distracted by either gender?

Anonymous

Yes of course I am just pointing out the article seemed to imply it was only boys who have raging hormones

Anonymous

The argument for single sex education for girls and women has nothing to do with "distraction" posed by the opposite sex. It is related to the damage of sexist biases and

Anonymous

I went to a women's college. I loved it. There have been studies that have shown that single sex education is actually better for girls. Boys tend to receive more resources in schools due to gender bias. Take that out of the equation and girls get more resources and this have more operation th to excel.

Anonymous

I went to a women's college. I loved it. There have been studies that have shown that single sex education is actually better for girls. Boys tend to receive more resources in schools due to gender bias. Take that out of the equation and girls get more resources. Thus, have more opportunities to excel.

Anonymous

Agreed: no segregation due to gender or race allowed. Oh snap, many progressive but post-modern schools are now endorsing it. Ok, I have it: you can't do it if we don't like you.

Anonymous

My daughter went to an all-girls school and it wasn't about the distractimion of boys it was about the fact that teachers give boys more attention than they give girls. And the girls can sometimes dumb themselves down and order to not be perceived as too smart for a boy. Can these be overcome certainly but it will take some time and I wasn't willing to do it at my daughter's expense

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