Phys Ed Class Segregation: Positive or Negative?

By Rachel B.

We grow up spending eight years in elementary school participating in mixed gendered Phys Ed classes with our peers and being introduced to a variety of sports and activities. Why is it that as soon as we enter the next chapter into high school as more mature youth, we suddenly need to be in a segregated Phys Ed class? I remember entering grade 9 and being disappointed that my Phys Ed class was all female and that I wouldn’t be able to participate with the boys. I did not understand why our classes were segregated when they had been mixed from kindergarten until grade 8. I found the all-female class less competitive and not as enjoyable. I was used to playing sports with boys and competing against my brothers after school. The types of activities that we participated in during gym class were predominantly female influenced and typically less aggressive and not as engaging. Some of the male dominated sports that I enjoyed, such as floor hockey and dodgeball, were not a popular option amongst the girls. Girls were often conscious of their appearance and wanted to participate in something that was less vigorous so they would not be sweaty for the remainder of the day.

The high school that I attended had segregated classes for grade 9 and 10 only and then became mixed gender in grade 11 and 12. Gym class was mandatory in grade 9 and 10 and then became optional in grade 11 and 12. I do not understand the rationale behind this program decision. This approach did not encourage continued participation by many females when they reached grade 11 due to entering a mixed gender class. I remember being a minority with only a few other girls in the class in grade 11 and 12. I understand the reasoning behind segregating Phys Ed classes to help some students feel more comfortable and confident to participate in sporting activities. In class, we discussed the popular constraints faced by adolescent girls. These constraints include being too competitive, lacking confidence, issues with body image and shyness. However, none of the other classes offered in high school are segregated by gender. I think that being able to work within a gender-neutral atmosphere and participate in an active environment is critical for enhancing successful students. Having mandatory gender neutral classes starting in grade 9 may lead to an increase in continued participation during the upper grades. Although the gender segregation approach may be benefiting some, it may also be hindering others who have a competitive edge and prefer to be challenged by the opposite sex. As well, research has shown that male only team sports reinforce gender stereotypes that devalue femininity and promote sexism and misogyny (Anderson, 2008). An integrated approach allows males to become more familiar with the experiences of females, thereby influencing their view of females as worthy and competent athletes (Anderson, 2008).

Segregated gym class also becomes a problem for those adolescents who do not identify with a specific gender. A binary model may not meet the leisure needs for members of the LGBTQ community. As Phys Ed is a compulsory course, having to choose one specific gender may discourage members of the LGBTQ community from participating. The outcome will result in these students making a choice as to whether they will show up for class or enrol in the future. Therefore, they potentially miss opportunities to engage in physical activity and learn team building and sport and recreation related skills. Gender identity is shifting to a fluid approach and gender segregated classes will become a much bigger and challenging issue as we redefine gender. Not all adolescents are gender conforming. Their gender expression is not consistent with the cultural norms expected for that gender; boys should be masculine and girls should be feminine. They view gender as a spectrum and consider themselves to be non-binary. An integrated gender neutral Phys Ed program would be much more inclusive and less discriminatory for this population.


Anderson, E. (2008). “I Used to Think Women Were Weak”: Orthodox Masculinity, Gender   Segregation, and Sport. Sociological Forum, 23(2), 257-280.


10 responses

  1. Great Article Rachel! I have never put much thought into high school gender separation of gym classes, yet it does seem like an arbitrary rule in secondary education. I also grew up in Ontario, there was no middle school to transition from elementary to secondary school and I remember that both grade nine and ten gym classes were gender separated. I always assumed that the classes were separated for the comfort of other girls, so that they could be active without worrying about being watched by boys. Although this was my assumption for others, I never felt more uncomfortable around just girls in gym classes. If anything, I hated having gym with just girls because they would not be as care free and competitive about the games we played. Compared to my mixed gender classes, I worried more about my outfits in gym classes with just girls because there was a lot of pressure to fit in with how everyone looks and keep up with trends. Once I was old enough to participate in the co-ed gym classes I had so much more fun; therefore, maybe if gym classes kept being co-ed there would be a lesser number of drop out rates for adolescent girls. I fully support your notion for gym class to remain gender neutral, this is especially important to youth who do not yet feel comfortable with their gender identity. As we understand more about gender fluidity and how it effects youth, I believe that gender neutral education is valuable.

  2. Interesting article Rachel! I completely agree with what you’ve put forward here. Segregated PE classes can be confusing, especially when you’ve always been in gender mixed classes up until that point. My own experience of having segregated gym classes differs from yours though, as we were segregated all the way through high school, and weren’t mixed in at any point. I feel that the segregation from the ages 11-14 was and is probably a bit stupid, as every kid at that age is shy for whatever reason, and the body hasn’t really started to change dramatically in most cases.

    However, from 14-16, I feel that certain sports should be segregated, mainly due to how some kids will have developed much faster than others. In non contact (or relative non contact) sports such as Tennis, Basketball and Soccer, I feel that both girls and boys should be able to take part together due to the low risk.

    However, in a case like Rugby, I feel this could be harmful to certain students. I know both girls and boys who don’t want to play rugby when you hit the ages of 15 and 16 due to the extra force that can put out by certain individuals, both female and male. It would seem almost brainless to parents if a girl was injured due to a particularly hard tackle from a boy (or vice versa) when the child in question didn’t want to be involved in mixing in for whatever reason, such as simply not wanting to play the sport.

    So while it is, in my opinion, stupid for girls and boys to be separated in all sports in high school, I feel that for the safety of both sexes, in some cases it is better for the two to be split, unless the participant is willing to mix in.

  3. Good post Rachel! I really enjoyed your perspective and your experience with segregated physical education classes. I also think it’s important that you touched on the affect these classes can have on the LGBTQ community. I also see the value in same-sex programs where is creates a comfortable environment where participants feel like they are able to fully express themselves. However, as we are told throughout our entire high school careers, we are being prepared for the real world. A sex-segregated class is not representative of society. Having both males and females establishes an understanding and respect between genders from a young age. This is important and is a characteristics that can be carried throughout their lives. Having these integrated classes will allow both males and females to feel confident and comfortable with the opposite sex. This is helpful to future real life business and academic situations. Ultimately, I am in agreement with the having both males and females be in the same physical education class. There are benefits to same sex programs but are more useful in youth when they are developing different assets.

  4. Great post Rachel. Coming from a high school that had combined gym classes, I had never understood the concept of this until entering into university and talking with other students. It is interesting how many people from the same country, or even in some cases the same province have such a different experience when it comes to gym class.

    I agree with the points that you have made and the fact that I see why they feel the need to segregate gym classes, but I think they forget what the youth are missing by having it this way. Girls start to have the feeling of that they are not good enough or at the same sport level as boys, while boys start to think they are above the girls and are better at sport. Within my gym classes there were many girls who did not want to participate with the boys because they saw them as too aggressive, but there were also other boys who thought they were as well. This goes against what it means to be a “man” and being rough and tough but some boy simply did not like being rough and I believe preferred to have combined classes. We were still expected to participate at a high level and were able to play all the different sports that were available to us at our school. I believe because of this is why I had an interest in many different sports early on in high school.There were not sports that I saw as being only for boys and enjoyed them all. If i had been in an all girls gym class and heard the different things the boys were playing that we were not then I might have started to get these ideas as well. I just believe there is so much more to benefit from having boys and girls in the same gym class not only for sport but also to enhance their social skills and the ideas that they gain from school and how they treat both men and women.

    If girls are constantly taken our of the contact sports then it is not a surprise why there is such a high drop out rate and girls start to not see the importance of sport as much as boys do. There should be equal opportunity for all and this will not only translate into sport but also into coaching and the ideas we gain from our past experiences. As we saw in class today on the topic of female coaches, if a boy has never seen a female play basketball at his school or in gym class before then they might not trust their female coach. The small choices we make we might not think make a difference outside of school but in reality they can make a huge impact on the way we view men and women in sport for the rest of our lives.

    Stephanie W.

  5. Awesome blog post Rachel! Growing up I have never experienced segregated PE classes but I remember you mentioning it in one of our class discussions. At first the idea of segregated PE made me excited. I probably would have liked gym class more if the aggressive boys playing fishes and whales was out of the equation. After reading your post I recognize that without males in my PE classes regardless if some of them were a bit extreme, gym would have been less challenging for me and as a result I might have been too bored. Like you had mentioned the all-girls gym class was less competitive and not as engaging. Due to this, I would be interesting to see if the girls were getting as much out of the physical activity in terms of health benefits compared to the male gym classes which would have been more fast paced. I think the larger issue in PE classes is that girls aren’t willing to work as hard because like you said they don’t want to be sweaty for the rest of the day. I have always been really competitive in nature, especially with boys. When it came to gym class, it didn’t matter what we were doing, I wanted to compete and be better then my male classmates. Being sweaty for the rest of the day was a risk I was willing to take. It would be interesting to see what kind of other alternative the school system could come up with that encourages girls to work harder in gym and benefit more from the physical activity. Weather this is providing them with more time following gym to shower or whatever I think this would be a more favorable alternative to segregating PE classes all together.
    I also think it is important that you brought up the LGBTQ community and how segregating PE into males and females may be offensive to them if they do not identify with traditional gender roles. I think the acceptance of the LGBTQ community is gaining even more attention and I hope that in the future they might be a more accepting alternative for gym class.
    Again, great post!

  6. Great blog post!! I have never experienced a sex segregated gym class myself, but in grade 10 I remember the whole class being made up of boys. The teacher was a stereotypical hegemonic male and I believe this is why many girls shied away from this class. Having a sex segregated class makes boys and girls believe that they are different and does not show them how they can work together. It is very interesting to think, as you mentioned in your post, about what class do people go you who don’t associate with a specific gender. I find the most important thing to consider about sex segregated classes is that it may teach young boys that is it normal to only work with the same sex and puts them on a higher “pedestal”.


  7. Congratulations on your post Rachel, it was well done and brings up some good ideas to think about. Gender segregated classes has it’s downsides like you mentioned. It does encourage a gender binary view of human identity, reinforces gender stereotypes and it hinders female athletes.

    Not everyone falls neatly into male or female gender identity, and it does leave transgendered individuals out of sports and it reinforces the idea that you have to be one or the other and that being different is abnormal and wrong. This is very harmful for transgendered individuals who have higher suicide rates than the average person. So I am glad you decided to discuss the impact on transgendered individuals because it is a concern and like you said as we redefine gender it will be a bigger and bigger question for recreation and sport facilitators to think about.

    Segregating genders in sports does reinforce the idea that men and women are very different and that men are better athletes than women and that they are more delicate. We see that physical contact in contact sports is allowed less than it is in male sports, we also make girls and women wear more protective gear in some sports. While there are some biological differences in the capabilities of men and women having gender segregated physical education reinforces these gender stereotypes.


  8. Awesome post Rach!

    I think that segregation is negative, up until the mid teens (14-17), then for me it becomes a positive. I feel that it is important that males and females learn to play sports with one another and solve their problems together at younger ages, so that if they decide to pursue an activity in PE later in life (soccer, basketball etc.), where they are segregated into their gendered teams, they have a broader sense of views around certain plays.

    I think that the mid teens is when people begin to specialize in sport and it’s also the time when females (typically) begin to drop out of sport and recreation. In my opinion segregation can help them to remain in sports as they are competing with other females. I found that females didn’t want to participate as much in a co-ed class, but when they were gendered into class, the participation rates were through the roof.

    I don’t see it as a negative, like many people would, rather I look at the inclusion of keeping people interested in sport ad recreational activities.

    Great job!

  9. Interesting post Rachel!

    I have never heard of segregated phys. ed. classes before! Thinking back to when I was in school, I feel like this would be a weird thing to experience. I attended a small, rural school and my class in high school only had 9 people in it (5 boys and 4 girls). Being the only female athlete in the class, I feel like segregating phys. ed. at that point would be weird and wouldn’t be much fun (and also silly considering the numbers). I really enjoyed my phys. ed. classes because there were only 2 students out of the 9 of us who weren’t athletes, but we were all such close friends that the 2 non-athletes put forth their best efforts in phys. ed. class for the mere purpose of having fun. Being a female who tends to be “one of the guys” and has mostly male friends, being in an all-girls phys. ed class would have felt out of place.

    Considering this is the first time I have heard about segregated physical education classes, I feel like I have a more open mind about it. I feel as though segregated phys. ed. classes can be both positive or negative.

    In my case, obviously, segregated physical education classes would probably be more negative than positive. In small, rural schools, such as my own, you go to school from kindergarten right through to grade 12 and graduate with the same people you started school with (for the most part). In this instance, I feel like co-ed physical education classes are beneficial, especially when everyone in your class is an athlete playing the same sport. Because male and female school sports teams are segregated, I feel like co-ed physical education classes gives both the male and female athletes a chance to bond at the same level.

    On the other hand, for bigger schools with much bigger class sizes, I feel like segregated physical education classes could possibly be more positive than negative. I feel like segregated physical education classes in these schools, especially for those in the adolescent stage (middle school), could potentially help with overcoming barriers. For example, it is at this stage in life that both boys and girls begin to go through puberty. For this reason, I feel like segregated phys. ed. classes could be beneficial. Being in an all-girls class, maybe girls would feel more comfortable with their body image and prefer the lesser extent of competitiveness. They may also be more likely to participate because they are not as “shy” or “scared” to perform physical activities in front of their male peers because there are no males in the class. For boys, maybe segregated physical education classes could help them to develop more. What I mean by that is maybe there is a boy in the class who is not exactly “athletic” and therefore feels out of place in physical education class. Maybe an all-boys phys. ed. class would give this boy the opportunity to develop his athleticism better by being able to learn directly from the male athletes he is surrounded by. This may also be more prominent because the athletic boys are not so focused on “trying to impress the girls” and therefore will take on more of a leadership role and help the “less fortunate” in terms of athleticism, by helping those boys who are not so athletic become better and eventually help them to become athletes.

    Definitely a very interesting topic and I would love to learn more about the concept of segregated physical education classes versus co-ed physical education classes and the “why” behind offering one versus the other.

  10. Great post! I have never experienced segregated gym class but I think it would be interesting to see how the sports or games that were played differed between the two classes. I agree with you that having sex segregated gym class has the potential to create an environment in which boys athleticism is given more value and more time to develop the skills that needed to compete at a high level as well as an environment that does not respect women, but I feel like since girls are not continuing on with gym classes that may be already happening. You mention that you felt that the all-girls class was not as competitive or as engaging, I wonder if that might contribute to the drop in girls wanting to participate in the gym classes that were not mandatory? I think it would be interesting to see if the participation of girls in gym classes went up if the non-mandatory gym class continued to be sex segregated?

    Marie O.

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