Confounding variables, stereotypes cause of gender disparity in majors

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Last fall, 56 percent of the incoming class at the College of William and Mary was female. Campus-wide, 55 percent of students on campus are women. While the gender breakdown within majors is typically proportionate to larger campus patterns, many majors that are traditionally seen as dominated by a single gender buck this trend. Majors that do not represent the majority-female campus, however, often fall in line with uneven representation nationally.

Numbers from the Office of Institutional Analysis and Effectiveness at the College of William and Mary indicate that the economics, finance and government majors have the least female representation in comparison to men. According to the data, 28.6 percent of declared economics majors are female, 34.2 percent of declared finance majors are female and 38.7 percent of declared government majors are female.

According to Margaret L. Hamilton Professor of Economics Robert Hicks, this gender disparity is seen not only in the major, but in the field of economics, too.

“If you look at the Ph.D.s, it’s been the case for a number of years. … [Economics is] perceived in the social sciences to be the most quantitative,” Hicks said.

Hicks added, however, that this gap between genders in the field of economics is closing quickly. In his experience, some of his best students have been women.

“I would say the gender gap is getting smaller pretty fast, [especially] at the Ph.D. level,” he said. “My best students — I’m generalizing a little bit here — but if you take the top 10 percent of students, more than half have been female. Some of my best students have been female.”

Philosophy, another field that has traditionally seen more male representation, has six female majors on campus, representing 22 percent of all philosophy majors. While this is a low number compared to the total percentage of women on campus, a study from the National Center for Educational Statistics indicates that 21 percent of faculty in the field nationwide is women.

Other majors at the College represent an uneven balance in the other direction. 75.9 percent of those majoring in psychology are female, as are 79.7 percent of English majors, 83.3 percent of anthropology majors and all 14 elementary education majors.

Anthropology major Sarah Smith ’16 said she thinks that there may be preconceived notions about the field.

“Some males I have talked to think anthropology isn’t … as effective as history, maybe. Perhaps women have a more compassionate view and so they are open to accepting or helping others through an anthropological lens,” Smith said in email.

She added, however, that gender might not be the reason for disparity.

“It’s really hard to be specific to gender because I feel there must be other compounding variables,” Smith said. “I think there are other reasons that then converge to make it appear to be gender.”

Jordan Taffet ’16, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies major, said he believes that, in a major often perceived as feminine, many miss the true tenets of the major.

“I’ve actually found that most of the critiques I face as a male in the GSWS major come from outside of my studies. People, particularly older men and women who pride themselves on their masculinity or femininity, tend to question my involvement in my major. They usually assume I’m either gay or a die-hard liberal,” Taffet said in email. “People often (and quite surprisingly) forget that cisgendered, heterosexual men, just like women and LGBTQIA people, also possess gender identities and sexual orientations and are therefore also allowed to critically reflect and comment upon the issues of gender and sexuality.”

The major, he finds, is a label that deters people from understanding how beneficial the study can be.

“Education should be open to everyone, especially when it involves concepts that are as universal as gender and sexuality,” Taffet added.


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