I had a great opportunity to talk about gender equity this weekend when I was on a longish bike ride. One of the women in the group is a former PE teacher and current freelance educator who works with schools to provide equitable after-school opportunities.
So while admiring the scenery and dodging angry drivers who did not appreciate our endeavors, we started talking about her past experiences with single-sex PE and sports activities. She noted that girls with whom she has worked really enjoyed, for example, learning sports skills in a single-sex environment and she would get comments from the participants like "It's so much better without boys around" and "I learned to do something I never thought I could do." And I supported this program and its outcomes. But it was only a one-time program.
When biker friend was a teacher, she taught single-sex PE. A few times she and the male PE teacher tried joint activities, but they quickly abandoned them because they didn't work (not sure of exactly why, however).
I didn't unleash any radical diatribe but I did comment that it seems difficult to know where and when the benefits of single-sex PE end or begin to outweigh the disadvantages and perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Because I don't doubt that girls feel very empowered by learning and even mastering skills in a no-boys environment. The problem is that we don't really know what they're going to do with all this empowerment. Is it really going to carry over into a classroom setting or a social setting where gender stereotypes are not so easily shattered no matter how empowered you have been in gym class.
Additionally, continuing to segregate PE classes (which is actually not allowed in many, if not most, public schools anymore--someone might want to correct me on this) sends a message to the boys as well. The assumption is that what the girls are doing on the other side of the wall is inferior to what they are doing because they bring to school stereotypes of girls' and women's physical inferiority. Sex segregation does not challenge these ideas.
So what happens when empowered girl meets socially constructed boy? I wish I could say that the positive feelings we get when we do something like throw a football or execute a perfect header into the goal or serve an ace carry over to the rest of our lives which include interactions with boys and men. But I am not sure I can believe this, at least not when looking at the way sport and physical activity is presented to girls. There isn't enough attention paid to the whole girl--it's just about making her more skilled and stronger physically. Again, these are good things but unless you connect them to the rest of her life they aren't going to have the full empowering effect.
But sport and feminism (yes, it's a feminist consciousness that I think is needed to counter these stereotypes to allow for a more effective empowerment) have a shaky relationship now and in the past. Unless we can infuse sport with some feminism and get more feminists to see the value and potential of sport things like single-sex PE become exercises in frustration.