Does gender affect what major college students choose? Nationally, some majors have relatively even gender ratios, while others have more uneven gender ratios. What causes this? There are several possible answers, and each major is different.
According to a 2014 Georgetown University study titled “What’s It Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors,” some majors with relatively even gender ratios are business management and administration, accounting, marketing and marketing research, pharmacology and communications. These majors have gender ratios close to 50 percent women and 50 percent men.
At Elizabethtown College, one major with a relatively even gender ratio is mathematical sciences. The ratio is about 48 percent female and 52 percent male.
In contrast, the study found that other majors like early childhood education, library science, nursing and nutrition sciences have more female students than male students. The gender ratios range from 97 percent women and three percent men to 89 percent women and 11 percent men, respectively.
The study also found that majors like military technologies, construction services, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering technology have more male students than female students. Their respective gender ratios range from seven percent women and 93 percent men to 10 percent women and 90 percent men.
At Etown, two majors with uneven gender ratios are occupational therapy (OT) and engineering.
Over her 10 years at Etown, associate professor, Chairperson and Program Director of the OT department Dr. Tamera Keiter Humbert has found that there are no more than three men out of the 60 to 70 OT students each year.
The gender ratio for the engineering department at Etown is 22 percent female and 78 percent male. This gender ratio is higher than the ratios of similar engineering majors covered in the study. The average ratio for these majors was 11 percent female and 89 percent male.
Other majors at Etown have moderately skewed gender ratios. These majors include biology and chemistry. The ratios are 66 percent female and 34 percent male and 71 percent female and 29 percent male, respectively.
Why do more men tend to choose majors like mechanical engineering and more women tend to choose majors like OT?
A 2015 GoodCall article titled “Which Majors Have the Highest Concentrations of Men versus Women?” suggests several possible reasons.
One reason is historical perspective. For many generations, women were encouraged to be caregivers, teachers and healthcare professionals. The article also discusses how history can influence people’s gender identities, which can impact decisions such as choosing a major.
Chair of the Education Department and associate professor of education Dr. Rachel Finley-Bowman thinks historically more women have taught earlier grades, such as 7th grade and below, because it was considered an extension of the home and private sphere.
However, more men tend to teach 7th grade and above, especially subjects like social studies and STEM. Finley-Bowman thinks this could be because higher grades focus more on the subject than lower grades do.
Humbert believes the history of the OT profession plays a role in why more women tend to choose the major.
OT started from the work of middle-class female volunteers, sometimes nurses or social workers. Many early leaders in the field were women, such as Susan Tracy and Eleanor Slagle.
“I think that it’s just a continuation of history that’s been over a hundred years old,” Humbert said.
Junior OT major David Van Aken thinks more men chose physical therapy if they are considering this type of field, and that possibly contributes to why there are fewer men in OT.
Another reason proposed by the article is lack of information and exposure. According to the article, women tend to want careers that will help society.
The article states that it is often easy to see how careers in fields like social work, education and healthcare will achieve that goal, but that it is not as obvious in fields like engineering.
People may be uninformed about how engineering and similar fields help society, such as by creating clean water and innovative products.
“A lot of females are drawn to fields where they see this direct impact on helping people and their lives,” assistant professor of engineering and physics Dr. Brenda Read-Daily said.
“That’s a general trend, and so I think engineering needs to do a better job with its messaging of how engineering can help people, and I think we do a good job at that as a department.”
Read-Daily thinks this trend could explain why there are generally more women who study biomedical and environmental engineering than those who study mechanical and electrical engineering.
Engineering and physics professor and Program Coordinator for ABET-Accredited BS Engineering Dr. Kurt DeGoede agreed with Read-Daily and added that the department follows the College’s motto of “Educate for Service” and emphasizes engineering for society.
“A lot of our research projects in the department are directly affecting the quality of life for individuals,” DeGoede said.
This emphasis could explain why Etown has a higher percentage of women in the engineering department than other universities do nationally.
Read-Daily and DeGoede think another possible reason for the uneven gender ratio in engineering is how children are socialized and how toys are marketed to kids.
For example, Read-Daily finds that many toys focused on building or moving parts are marketed towards boys.
“I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and I’m really conscious of that as a parent,” Read-Daily said.
Many children also go to elementary schools where most of the teachers are female and to high schools where most of the male teachers are in the science departments. The media also plays a part by portraying professions certain ways and spreading stereotypes.
“I think there’s a lot of subtle messaging,” Read-Daily said. “It’s pervasive; it’s all over the place. That gets translated into decisions about majors and career paths.”
“You get into the kind of chicken and egg type of problem,” DeGoede added.