Gendered Majors

So, the other day I went to a dinner for French Majors, and one of my friends brought up what I thought was an interesting comment.  She asked whether it was odd that there were barely any men in all the French classes she’d taken.  The three visiting professors, all from very prestigious colleges around the area, looked at each other and then at all the majors who had joined them for dinner.  Of about 15 majors in total, two of them were men.  The visiting professors then said it was completely normal.

That got me wondering: are majors ‘gendered’ or made for certain genders?  There have been times when I’ve noticed an abnormal amount of women in the classroom, and times when everything looked much more balanced.

When I was still in high school, I had to pick an academic area in my senior year.  The different areas were: Humanities, Physics/Math, Biology/Chemistry, and Economics.  I picked Humanities as my area, and out of a class of 26 people, three were men.

Why does this happen?  I looked online, and while I couldn’t get my question answered, I did find an interesting study published by Forbes.  You can find it here.  From the article, I learned that the most popular majors aren’t as ‘gendered’ as I thought they’d been, although there were still some interesting percentages in both.  For Health Professions and Clinical Science, from whence a person may become a nurse or physical therapist, women encompassed over 85% of the major!  In Education, to become secondary or elementary school teachers, they were about 80% of the major as well.  Psychology, 77%.  Are you seeing the pattern?  Although women and men were pretty equal in some majors, there were some that still stood out.  For men, for example, in Engineering they were 83% of the major.  Computer Science, 82%.

Perhaps it’s the subject matters that appeal to different genders, or women are led to take different paths than men are.  I honestly don’t know, but it’s definitely something I’m going to keep in mind as I move through college.


6 thoughts on “Gendered Majors

  1. I have had this conversation with someone before when as an English major, who takes a lot of classes in the Humanities, I honestly didn’t know what the men on campus studied. I thought my classes were pretty diverse too. Anyway, my friend said he had males in his Comps Sci, Econ and Maths classes.

    I think this might go back to gender though. What women are brought up to do (definitely not tinkering around with wires) and what men are told they can do. The things we choose to study might be an indication of gendered education that starts at a very early age.

    My friend says he could not possibly do an English major. That he cannot write stories (I have only done this in one class!) and that writing was for women. It is too fluffy for him, unless it is an Econ text book.

    You know what a good study would be on campus though? The professors in these majors. We can see if the gender imbalance is duplicated in the professors (I think they are more fairly distributed in the sciences; not certain about humanities though).

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot since coming to college too. I think another thing to consider in this context is the fact that there are more female- than male-identified students enrolled at each of the five colleges, though the margin is smallest at Amherst–which I think is probably another interesting fact to analyze on its own. I think Becky is right in that these trends probably do correlate a lot with what we are taught to be acceptable/normal as children.

  3. There was a famous psychology study by Jac Billington, Simon Baron Cohen and Sally Wheelright that addresseed exactly what you write about. It is called “Cognitive style predicts entry into physical sciences and humanities:
    Questionnaire and performance tests of empathy and systemizing.” The results showed that women and men are gendered in their choice of occupations and interests mostly because of the way they process information (systematizing or empathizing). And, of course, women as empathizers, deal more with people (thus humanities). However, the average participant of this study was 21 years old. It is impossible to separate nature from nurture using someone who has been molded or at least influenced, by ideology for as long as 21 years. As Grosz addresses, our bodies make up our minds and Rene Descartes sums it all into his famous quote: “I think therefore I am.” These authors and philosophers would challenge Billington for analyzing the mind for what it is now as a direct/natural cause of our behavior. They would accuse him of teleology since their arguments address the uncertainty about the process through which the body determines what the mind becomes and the mind adjusts to what one’s body in an ideological context.

  4. On a personal note, I definitely think it has to do with what women and men are socialized to do. When I was really young, I was pretty good at math, but as I got older, my confidence was shaken and I didn’t consider myself to be good at it anymore. You always hear about boys being better at math and science anyway. That definitely affected what I considered to be viable options as a career choice–I wanted to be a doctor for a really long time, but since I wasn’t good at math, I didn’t think it was a possibility. And in college, that affected what I chose as my majors.

    On another note, I think it’s interesting that even in subjects/fields that are considered to be more gendered like English or cooking, the people who are considered to be the most successful journalists or chefs are still men.

  5. It’s interesting that Nursing, Psychology, and Education majors are predominantly female since expectations of them align with what are expected of females socially. Nurses are expected to be caring and sympathetic. Psychology is all about understanding people, a feat that females are supposedly better at because they are “more” empathetic. Many education majors are thought of as potential teachers, usually at pre-college levels, and are therefore expected to be good with kids/teenagers.

    Another thing to to think about are salaries. Nurses make less than doctors (who are more often men than women) and teachers typically receive lower pay, especially at the public school level. Do the distribution of salaries follow the gendering of majors or vice versa?

  6. It might be interesting to look at how majors are racialized. I was looking at the reports Amherst issues about who majors in what, and found it surprising how race/ethnicity actually played more of a role than gender in choosing a major at Amherst. For instance, white students were more likely to major in Econ than any other group. Latinos students, on the other hand, leaned towards other majors like Spanish, History, and Sociology.

    I’m an English and Sociology major, and in my sociology classes, I often find that there are a lot of people of color; hardly any White students.

    Just something to think about!

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