Gendering Degrees: STEM majors among most gender imbalanced at the College

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February 2, 2015

10:38 PM

According to a Fall 2014 data collection by the College of William and Mary’s Office of Institutional Research, most majors at the College of William and Mary show somewhere between a 60 percent to 40 percent ratio in terms of gender balance. Most majors had more female candidates, owing to the College’s slightly imbalanced ratio of women to men — 55 percent to 45 percent.

The majors that showed the most equal distribution among the genders were accounting, government, geology, international relations and public policy.

The most imbalanced majors were American studies, physics and computer science.

The most imbalanced majors were American studies, physics and computer science. It should be noted, however, that only thirteen students are currently majoring in American studies, which may skew the perception of its percentage results, whereas physics and computer science have between 50 and 100 student candidates.

Many students may not be surprised by which genders tend to gravitate toward which academic fields. Derek Richardson ’18 said he believes there would be an imbalance.

“I don’t think there would be a balance,” he said. “I feel like some males tend to go one route and females go another. … I would guess that there are more men doing things at the business school or in sciences like physics, and perhaps more women doing English, theatre or film studies.”

Computer science professor Evgenia Smirni discussed her experience in the computer science department at the College, which is 25 percent women and 75 percent men.

“Actually, W&M has a much stronger representation of women in our undergraduate and graduate programs, higher than the national averages,” Smirni said in an email. “Ditto for women faculty in the program.”

Smirni spoke about the department’s efforts to be more inclusive toward women in a field that is typically very male-dominated.

“One of the efforts we make to increase participation of women in CS is to sponsor a group of undergraduate students to attend the ‘Grace Hopper conference for women in computing’ every year,” Smirni said in an email. “Students come back from Grace Hopper very excited, motivated, and sure that CS is the right major for them.”

Chancellor professor of physics David Armstrong shared a similar sentiment regarding the gender distribution in his department at the College.

“It is a well-known problem, and not just at W&M,” Armstrong said. “STEM fields do not have a proportionate representation of genders, and departments are very concerned about it.”

Armstrong said this affects the academic community, specifically at the College.

“First of all, there are additional challenges to young women entering these fields because they don’t see as many role models, which makes them think these fields are less inviting or appropriate, and this is limiting,” Armstrong said. “I think that’s the biggest effect on our community — women don’t ‘see’ themselves as often in faculty ranks, which discourages or dissuades them from entering a field.”

The College has a higher number of women majoring in STEM fields — around 25 percent — than the national average of 17.8 percent.

The College has a higher number of women majoring in STEM fields — around 25 percent — than the national average of 17.8 percent. However, a number of faculty and students have agreed that the College is not exempt from the problem of underrepresentation of females in these fields.

As far as the imbalance in the scientific community goes, Armstrong said there are a number of unproven hypotheses, one of which is discouragement toward females interested in STEM that begins at a young age.

“I think that at the elementary, middle and high school levels there is a conscious or unconscious gender bias in the teaching,” Armstrong said. “I think it is lessening significantly, but it still is the case.”

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  • Caroline Nutter

(4) Readers Comments

  1. Warren Joblin '60
    February 3, 2015 at 1:20 PM

    Chancellor Armstrong knows not what he talks about when he opines that "conscious or unconscious bias" occurs in the lower grades. There is no proof that this occurs or that it has any effect on the number of women interested in STEM. Why is it uncomfortable for educators to accept that women and men might be drawn into different fields without some "bias" effect ? Is anyone concerned about the number of men in early childhood, elementary and secondary education ? Must be bias or lack of mentors, right ?

    • David Armstrong
      February 9, 2015 at 8:00 PM

      Dear Warren, There is a large amount of peer-reviewed research that strongly indicates that there are biases present in elementary and secondary schools that have steered (and continue to steer) young women away from STEM fields. My experience talking to female W&M students confirms that this is the case, at least anecdotally, for many young women. Of course, it is *possible* that there may be innate differences between the sexes to account for *some* differences... but when one observes that in other cultures the distributions of the genders in different fields is strikingly different than in North America, the idea that the main driving cause is innate differences seems very hard to accept. A case in point: the gender distribution in academic and professional physicists in Italy is nearly 50/50. Our nation is missing out on highly-needed talent if half the population is being steered away from careers in STEM fields. best regards, David Armstrong Physics

    • Saskia
      March 19, 2015 at 4:32 PM

      Dear Warren, First of all, as a woman, in STEM, I take offense. I can tell you that I still encounter concious and unconcious bias as a result of my gender on a daily basis within my STEM field. As Prof. Armstrong mentions, research has shown that at even at an early age women are discriminated against in math and science classes. I am only going to link the newest study I found: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/05/girls-lack-self-confidence-maths-science-oecd-school-engineering There are plenty of studies around, that show girls are for example called upon less often during math lessons than boys (even while they outscore boys on standardized tests). So based on aptittute at a young age there is no reason for girls not to into STEM and a lot of girls do, just not into physics. This discrimination at a young age, however does not free universties from their obligation to try and create an inviting climate for minorities (women or other). I do think that each major that has a typical over-representation of one gender (and I am wondering here, how diverse gender studies is for example) should actively avaluate how it can become more inclusive. It is not healthy for a scientific field to only appeal to a select group of individuals. Science bollosms when people are forced to view thinks from new perspectives. So diversity is critical to the survival of a scientific field.

  2. David Armstrong
    February 16, 2015 at 4:01 PM

    As a poignant dramatization, please look at this short ad: http://latenitelabs.com/bridging-gender-gap-stem/?mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRovvqTIZKXonjHpfsX66OkqXqW2lMI%2F0ER3fOvrPUfGjI4ATsNlNa%2BTFAwTG5toziV8R7LELs1x0toQWxHh

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