Private single-sex universities play an ambiguous role in achieving gender equality

2022 Gender Report

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CREDIT: UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

All countries legally permit women to undertake some form of tertiary education. Women are the majority of tertiary students worldwide, although cultural, religious and political factors limit their education opportunities in some regions. Historically, women’s colleges and universities were founded to address such barriers to access. Post-secondary education institutions that admit only female students continue this mission today.

Depending on national context, they play a range of roles, including providing access to female students who otherwise would not be able to continue their education after secondary school, offering courses of study that are not available at mixed-gender schools, promoting leadership and personal development among students, and establishing campuses with less sexism and gender-based harassment than co-educational institutions. In addition, they have historically been symbols of the value of girls’ and women’s education.2

Single-sex colleges and universities may be entirely private, receiving no financial support from the state; funded by a mix of private and state sources; or entirely state supported. They are distributed unevenly around the world, with many countries having none (Purcell, 2005; Renn, 2014).

Women’s higher education in India grew out of the establishment of girls’ schools in the late 1800s and efforts to educate women as teachers in academies that were sometimes similar to secondary schools and sometimes more advanced. The founding of Indian Women’s University, now SNDT Women’s University, in 1916 was a watershed event that began a slow movement to opening stand-alone women’s colleges, women’s colleges affiliated with co-educational universities (e.g. Lady Shri Ram College for Women and the University of Delhi) and independent women’s universities. Government and private institutions in India now make up the world’s largest single-sex education sector: There are over 4,500, of which nearly a third are vocational colleges (India Today, 2016). In general, there is no resistance to co-education but religious and cultural forces limit individual women’s choices (Renn, 2014, 2017). Recognizing the importance of women’s universities, the University Grants Commission at one time had a plan to open 700 additional ones (Times of India, 2012). Public and private women’s universities also make important contributions to women’s education in Pakistan. Unfortunately, they provide easy targets for violent opposition to women’s education, as evidenced by terrorist attacks against students in 2009 and 2013 (Khan, 2014).

The establishment of single-sex institutions in Eastern and South-eastern Asia aimed to provide women with access to higher education, previously all male. A few independent women’s colleges were founded by pioneering educators, some of whom had attended single-sex colleges and universities in Europe or the United States. For example, Tsuda University in Tokyo was started by a former student of Bryn Mawr College and promoted a new style of education for Japanese women (Pamonag, 2012). Japan has two public women’s universities. Christian missionaries from North America and Europe worked in several Asian countries, and single-sex institutions still operating in Japan and the Republic of Korea stemmed from their efforts. Catholic orders active in the Philippines founded five of the six current women’s universities. Some private women’s universities in these three countries have sufficient resources and student demand to support their continued existence as women’s institutions within largely co-educational post-secondary sectors.

In China, a small number of women’s universities augment an overwhelmingly co-educational higher education system. A survey showed that 47% of students at women’s colleges and universities came from rural areas, compared with 22% at other colleges and universities (Lingyu et al., 2021). Student preferences for single-sex or co-educational institutions may be outweighed by their desire to attain a seat in post-secondary education (Renn, 2017).

Single-sex higher education has been the norm in the Gulf States. A model of gender-segregated education within nominally co-educational institutions may occur, with men and women using different parts of a physical campus, taking different sections of online courses and engaging in parallel streams of campus activities (Lipka, 2012; Naidoo and Moussly, 2009). In 2009, Saudi Arabia became the last country to officially permit co-education in public higher education (Naidoo and Moussly, 2009). Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 1970 in Riyadh as a College of Education for women, expanded to full women’s university status in 2004 and is today one of the world’s largest women’s universities (Butt, 2018).

Most public post-secondary institutions in the United Arab Emirates are single-sex, with women’s universities offering parallel institutions within systems. The Higher Colleges of Technology, for example, have men’s and women’s campuses in each emirate (Higher Colleges of Technology, 2021). The government founded Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in 1998, recognizing the need to provide higher education access to women while maintaining national laws that then prohibited co-education. Non-state-sponsored institutions may be fully co-educational.

Co-education is the predominant mode of post-secondary education in Africa. Where women’s universities exist, they are the result of local efforts to provide access to girls and women. Ahfad University for Women was established in 1966 in Sudan, growing out of a girls’ school founded in 1907 (Badri, 2001); the National Council for Higher Education gave it full university status in 1995. More recently, women’s universities have been founded to create higher education opportunities in fields in which women have been under-represented. For example, Kenya’s Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology was founded in 2002 ‘to bridge the gap in gender representation in higher education as well as contributing to the social and economic development of the country’ (KWUST, 2021). Women’s University in Africa was also established in 2002, in Zimbabwe, with a focus on agriculture, management, entrepreneurship and information technology (Women’s University in Africa, 2021).

In the United States, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) opened in 1837 as an all-women institution focusing on high-quality curricula and preparing Christian missionaries. Opportunities for women expanded slowly with the founding of additional private women’s colleges and a small number of private co-educational institutions. As state-supported higher education spread in the 19th century, women gained access to some public universities, agricultural colleges and normal schools or teachers’ colleges (Solomon, 1985). There was substantial resistance to women’s higher education, rooted in pseudoscientific beliefs that women’s bodies could not withstand the rigour of intellectual work or simply that women should not do the kinds of work for which college would prepare them (Palmieri, 2007). Many state-supported institutions barred women from admission at first, although few did so by the late 1800s. At their peak in the first half of the 20th century, there were over 300 single-sex institutions (Langdon, 2001), mostly private, with a substantial representation of Catholic institutions. The small number of state-supported women’s universities (e.g. Florida State University, Mississippi University for Women, Texas Woman’s University) had some counterparts in women’s divisions or colleges within larger state universities (e.g. Douglass College at Rutgers University).

As women gained access to nearly all of the country’s colleges and universities in the later 20th century, single-sex institutions merged, closed or admitted men. Fewer than 40 remain (Women’s College Coalition, 2021). Only 0.5% of all female students attended these institutions in 2018 (US Department of Education, 2019). But as several of them have endowments of over US$1 billion and highly selective admissions, they may continue as women’s institutions. Only 2% of female secondary students are willing to consider a women’s college or university (Jaschik, 2017), leaving these institutions with a more limited pool from which to recruit qualified applicants. They are at an advantage, however, in recruiting international students whose families would prefer them to attend a single-sex institution (Lewin, 2008).

In Australia, Canada and some European countries, patterns observed were similar to those in the United States. Substantial resistance to women’s education slowly gave way to increasing numbers of co-educational institutions, to men’s universities admitting women and to single-sex institutions for women, often affiliated with a larger university (e.g. Oxford University, University of Sydney, University of Western Ontario). After reaching a peak in the mid-1900s, most women’s colleges in these countries became co-educational, closed or merged, leaving just a few today (Purcell, 2005): Australia has four, Canada one, Italy one, the United Kingdom three. Those in Canada and the United Kingdom are affiliated with publicly funded universities. Women’s colleges in the United Kingdom enrolled 0.1% of the total female undergraduate population (Higher Education Statistics Agency, 2021; University of Cambridge, 2021). Women’s universities are not a feature of contemporary Latin American or Caribbean higher education systems.


Contemporary global growth in women’s universities is driven in part by non-state actors, including educators, social entrepreneurs, religious leaders and businesspeople. Some recent examples have been rather isolated efforts in countries with few or no single-sex post-secondary options, such as Zimbabwe, where two feminist educators started Women’s University in Africa in 2002 (Nondo and Mbereko, 2020); Kenya, where architect and businessman Paul Ndarua established Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology in 2002; and Bangladesh, where Asian University for Women (AUW) opened in 2006 after efforts spearheaded by Kamal Ahmad. The AUW project attracted substantial philanthropic support from foundations (e.g. the Bill & Melinda

Gates, Goldman Sachs and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations), individuals and US agencies including the Department of State (Asian University for Women, 2021). It is a rare, stand-alone liberal arts institution in the region, is international and supports women who are the first in their families to attend higher education.

Although the days of Christian missionaries and Catholic orders establishing universities for women have passed, Muslim religious leaders continue to expand access to post-secondary education for women. Shi’ite clerics have opened over 300 women’s seminaries in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where women can earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees and become religious teachers (Sakurai, 2012). Some madrasas for women in Pakistan offer post-secondary degrees alongside elementary and secondary curriculum (Bano, 2010). Israel has women’s seminaries that do not grant degrees, including one founded in 2016 that is fully online, providing women who work and/or care for families an opportunity to engage in religious learning (Headapohl, 2016).

Some businesspeople have seen profit-making opportunities in marketing diplomas, certificates and degrees to women in a single-sex setting. In cultures where some students and families strongly prefer single-sex education for girls and women, commercial women’s universities may be an attractive option. For example, the Educational Projects Company, a corporate entity, established the Royal University for Women in Bahrain as a UK-style bachelor’s degree–granting university in a region where women’s universities thrive (Royal University for Women., 2021). In Uganda, the for-profit Women’s Institute of Technology and Innovation was founded to ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ (WITI, 2021).

Women’s universities’ governance and regulation are integrated in national systems

The establishment and continued existence of women’s universities may be a matter of national policy. In the United States, public institutions must admit students without discriminating on the basis of sex, and the few public universities still bearing the name ‘women’s university’ enrol men. All other women’s universities are private. Conversely, all public colleges and universities in the United Arab Emirates and, until recently, Saudi Arabia are gender-segregated or single-sex. National policy is silent on this matter in most other countries, where state-funded post-secondary education is co-educational by law or policy.

In many countries, private women’s universities may receive substantial subsidies. Private non-profit universities may be exempt from taxes, apply for state-funded research grants and receive student fees. For-profit universities may not get all these benefits but still gain through government payments or bursaries to students.

The distinction between public and private or state and non-state women’s universities may be less in how funds flow to them and more in their institutional governance. Like co-educational, private non-profit institutions, women’s colleges and universities in some countries have boards of trustees or directors who are responsible for the institution’s well-being. Someone with a title such as resident, chancellor, vice chancellor, principal, rector or head of school leads the institution and oversees academic, economic and other areas. Depending on the region, such institutions are more likely than co-educational institutions to have women as leaders. Their for-profit counterparts may have a variety of leadership and governance structures, compliant with local laws regarding corporations and, where applicable, educational corporations. They are chartered and regulated by national or subnational bodies.

Accreditation plays an important role in their functioning. Accreditation systems vary but the process of seeking accreditation from a nationally approved body and undergoing a regular review of curriculum, facilities, policies and resources is generally the same across countries. Women’s universities that offer degrees in professional areas, such as education, business, nursing, medicine and engineering, may seek accreditation from bodies in those fields. Accreditation is particularly valuable in verifying that students at all-female schools receive the same level of education as those at co-educational institutions. In countries with clear quality assurance practices, quality standards have the same purpose. Some women’s colleges and universities take great pride in their national or international rankings, though these are not the same as governance, accreditation or quality assurance,. Miranda House and Lady Shri Ram College, both affiliated with the University of Delhi, are the top two colleges in the National Institutional Ranking Framework in India, for example, and Wellesley College routinely ranks among the top five elite liberal arts colleges in the United States.

Women’s universities have distinctive curriculum and pedagogy characteristics

Women’s post-secondary education institutions began by helping expand who was educated and what opportunities they had. Today, they offer classical liberal arts curricula (e.g. humanities, languages, social sciences); traditionally feminized fields such as education and social work; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes; professional degrees (e.g. journalism, business, law); vocational training (e.g. emergency paramedical services, clerical work, bookkeeping); and religious education.

Some universities evolved from teacher training institutes, and many continue to educate large numbers of future teachers. Until recently in India, men could not enrol in bachelor’s degree programmes in elementary education because all such programmes were offered at women’s colleges, as were undergraduate degrees in psychology, mass media and mass communication (digitalLEARNINGNetwork, 2009). As recently as 2018, Delhi University offered admission to the bachelor’s elementary education programme only to women (India Today, 2018).

Women’s universities have educated disproportionate numbers of women in STEM fields, notably in the United States (Calkins et al., 2020; Dinin et al., 2017; Enke, 2020; Ridgwell and Creamer, 2003; Stage and Hubbard, 2009) but also in other countries (Hasan, 2007; Kodate et al., 2010). Educators have looked to them for ideas about how to improve women’s participation and experience in STEM fields at co-educational universities. In the last three decades, some women’s colleges and universities have been started specifically to educate women in STEM, including Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology (Kenya), Women’s University in Africa (Zimbabwe), Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Women’s Institute of Technology (Darbhanga, India), Women Institute of Technology (Dehradun, India) and Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women (Delhi, India). Ahfad University in Omdurman, Sudan, opened a medical school for women in 1990.

Women’s universities gave a boost to the field of women’s studies (Wotipka and Ramirez, 2008). In the early 2010s, China Women’s University offered the country’s only women’s studies undergraduate degree, attracting many students (Renn, 2014b). It has been argued that women’s studies is ‘vital to the mission and key to the survival’ of women’s universities in the United States, as the field reinforces an original aim of focusing on women and gender as central (Sahlin, 2005).

In some regions, women’s higher education institutions offer religious education. Students and families may choose women’s madrasas in Pakistan partly to signal their values and orientation towards religion, as well as to gain knowledge and deepen their faith (Bano, 2010). Although Christian missionaries and Catholic orders were instrumental in spreading women’s education to colonized regions in the 1800s and early 1900s, religious education is not a primary focus of the remaining colleges and universities thus founded.

Single-sex, two-year community colleges and polytechnics provide access to vocational training through degree, certificate or diploma programmes. Their mission is typically to train women for the workforce and promote gender equality through women’s employment. The women’s colleges of the Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates train students in emergency paramedical services, medical imaging, video production and tourism management (Higher Colleges of Technology, 2021). In India, 30% of women’s post-secondary institutions are vocational training schools (India Today, 2016) and some women’s universities continue their traditional role in adult education. Women’s University in Africa provides adult education and diploma programmes in career-related areas, such as agriculture and education (Nondo and Mbereko, 2020).

The Philippine Women’s University has a robust technical and vocational mission (The Philippine Women’s University, 2021); it is one of several accredited single-sex options for technical education (TESDA, 2015).

Some women’s universities offer activities to prepare graduates for careers, with experiential education a key component. For example, Dubai Women’s College supports internships that give students real-world experience in mixed-gender workplaces. Students at women’s universities in the United States are more likely than their peers at co-educational institutions to engage in community service and service learning, which enriches their development and learning (Kinzie et al., 2007a; Kinzie et al., 2007b). Some degree programmes are structured to be especially accessible to female students through distance learning and online and hybrid modes. Women’s University in Africa offers programmes through a dual-mode approach (Nyaruwata, 2018). A hybrid problem- based learning curriculum, designed to increase women’s enrolment in information and communication technology, yielded positive outcomes for women’s career decision making in the Republic of Korea (Kim and Cho, 2018). SNDT Women’s University in India was founded to serve adult women learners and continues this work through a distance education centre (Renn, 2014).

Not every women’s university engages in feminist pedagogy, and not all feminist pedagogy occurs at all-female institutions. Still, there is a particular role for feminist pedagogy where all students are women. Feminist pedagogy is characterized by sharing power with students, engaging in collaborative learning activities, acknowledging affective as well as cognitive processes of learning, including experiential learning, and focusing on intersecting identities, e.g. based on gender and race (Langdon, 2001). These practices, found at many women’s colleges (Langdon, 2001; Renn, 2014), have been identified as good educational practice that should be adopted by co-educational institutions (Smith et al., 1995; Wolf, 2000).


Potential benefits of attending women’s universities include student engagement and leadership development, an inclusive campus environment, academic success and post-graduate career success. But critics believe the institutions may reinforce gender stereotypes and cultivate a gendered status quo.

Female university students in the United States were found to be more engaged in campus life and learning activities than female students at co-educational colleges and universities (Kinzie et al., 2007a; Kinzie et al., 2007b). A study of female students in STEM fields showed that women’s college students in the United States were more engaged in campus activities related to their academic major (e.g. conducting out-of-class research, joining STEM-related clubs) than female or male students at similar co-educational institutions (Mazur, 2019). But a study of engagement with faculty at institutions with varied histories of admitting women (i.e. always co- educational, formerly all-male, always all-female, formerly all-female) showed that women university students reported fewer experiences of being challenged academically in the classroom (Trolian et al., 2018).

Around the world, students at women’s universities reported believing they were more likely to have gotten involved in campus activities and leadership than they would at a co-educational institution (Hasan, 2007; Renn and Lytle, 2010). They attributed this engagement to opportunities to take up activities not typical for their gender as well as a sense that if a woman did not do it, no one would (Renn, 2012, 2014b). Many women’s universities also build students’ leadership skills for after graduation (Iwaski et al., 2021; Ladika, 2017).

Studies have repeatedly shown that the climate is more female-inclusive at women’s universities and colleges than at co-educational institutions (Dinin et al., 2017). They experience greater support for their academic goals and more encouragement to participate in campus governance and student activities. They are exposed to less overt sexism from classmates and instructors (Kinzie et al., 2007b; Purcell, 2005). At many, the share of female faculty and academic leadership is higher than that of comparable co-educational institutions, so students have more female role models (Kodate et al., 2010). Some women’s universities, including SNDT Women’s University in India and Women’s University in Africa in Zimbabwe, shape curriculum and pedagogy around the needs of students who may be working and caring for families (Nondo and Mbereko, 2020). Research confirms women’s colleges and universities contribute disproportionately to production of STEM graduates and students who go on to post-graduate studies, even when competing for female student enrolment with elite co-educational institutions (Calkins et al., 2020; Enke, 2020).

Additional evidence of the impact of women’s colleges and universities on graduates’ careers and economic outcomes is mixed. Earnings data from the United States showed that such institutions were more likely than similar co-educational institutions to promote social mobility, defined as graduates moving from lower to higher income quintiles 10 years after graduation (Enke, 2020). Conversely, a study showed that graduates of elite women’s colleges earned less than women who graduated from elite co-educational institutions, linking this to social networks with fewer men (Belliveau, 2005). Another explanation may be that women’s college graduates had a stronger desire to work for social change than women from co-educational institutions and the related careers tend to pay less than corporate careers.

Some studies point out ways that women’s colleges and universities reinforce gender stereotypes. The ideology of ‘good wife, wise mother’ (ryōsai kenbo in Japanese) (Koyama, 2012) in some Asian nations permeated early curriculum and pedagogy to reinforce the idea that even educated women should take the lead from their husbands (Kodate et al., 2010; Renn, 2014). Among more recent examples, one study found that a private, for-profit women’s university in India reinforced patriarchal ideas by, for example, denying law students the opportunity to participate in moot court with men from other campuses (Shankar and Ram, 2021). While most women’s colleges in the United States cultivated progressive ideas about gender roles and careers, some promoted more traditional gender roles (Ridgwell and Creamer, 2003). However, such arguments against educating women in single-sex institutions contrasts with overwhelmingly positive research findings about women’s universities’ student outcomes.

2 This section is based on Renn (2022)