Women go to college: Gender distinction continues in common degree programs

Rachel Christian

Until recently, college was considered a man’s world, but that trend has reversed itself in a big way.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of full-time male students enrolled in college increased 36 percent, while females saw a 56 percent increase, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

USI’s enrollment numbers tell a similar story.

Since 2000, female enrollment has increased by 639 students, but by only 251 male students. Female students made up 61 percent of the overall student body last year.

Not only are fewer men enrolling in college, but at many schools including USI, fewer are applying.

About 40 percent more women than men applied to USI for the fall of 2013, and from those applicants, nearly twice as many females were accepted.

So what’s keeping men from college?

Some research suggests that men put less value on college than women, questioning whether it’s necessary or worth the cost.

“I think men tend to take less traditional routes to college,” said Tori Shoulders, assistant professor of education. “They may go into the military first or head into the workforce for a semester or two after high school.”

Shoulders said men may be more worried about the high cost of higher education. Traditionally, men have been expected to be the “bread winners,” so they may not see the use in racking up thousands of dollars in debt, even if it pays off for them in the long run.

Men may also be more attracted to vocational or technical schools, which require less time to complete and often cost less, Shoulders said.

Sticking to gender roles

Even though women have made enrollment and graduation gains across the nation, some in the education field say mere numbers isn’t enough.

Assistant professor of education Thuy DaoJensen said female college students still face sexual harassment and the threat of sexual assault while they’re in school.

“Even when women have access to higher education, there’s things going on outside the classroom that can make it difficult for them to concentrate,” DaoJensen said.

DaoJensen pointed to another trend – women continue to enroll in traditionally female-populated majors, like education and nursing. STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and math) continue to be dominated by men.

STEM-focused schools across the country, such as MIT, continue to show higher male enrollment numbers.

Gender inequalities are most noticeable at USI in the health professions, education and engineering majors.

In the teacher education program, women outnumber men six to one, and nearly 90 percent of all nursing majors are female. Women also make up the majority of students in the College of Liberal Arts.

Hank Burgher, a freshman elementary education major, said most of his male friends are majoring in business. Burgher said men may not be attracted to fields like teaching because they don’t see it as profitable.

“They tend to really look at it from a financial aspect,” Burgher said. “They think about a teacher’s salary compared to a business executive’s salary, and then want to do that instead.”

Jacob Rexing is a dental hygiene major and the only male student in the senior class. Out of 184 students enrolled in the program last year, only eight were men.

Rexing said he thinks traditional gender roles are a major reason why.

“Since anyone can remember, men have been dentists and women have been the hygienists,” Rexing said. “I think people are slow to change their way of thinking and see it any other way.”

Rexing said it doesn’t feel strange being the only guy in his senior class, and even though he’d like to see the field diversify itself in the future, it doesn’t bother him either way.

“When I was first thinking about going into the program, I thought it might be weird,” he said. “But it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not something I really think about.”

Still a man’s world?

In contrast, more men are enrolled in the Romain College of Business, and men make up nearly 93 percent of all engineering majors at USI. They also dominate other majors in the Pott College of Science, Engineering and Education (although the margins are slim in mathematics and women outnumber men in biology.)

Kaylen Chessman says she’s never been intimidated by men, which is good considering they outnumber her in her engineering major eleven to one.

Chessman said she always knew she wanted to be an engineer.

The sophomore has been interested in math and science from an early age and loves figuring out how things work. But despite her confidence, Chessmen said there’s still many stereotypes about a girl who wants to go into the engineering field.

“I’ve had a lot of guys in my freshman classes say, ‘Oh well, you just suck up to the professor,'” Chessman said. “They say I’m the only girl in class, so the professor feels sorry for me, so he takes it easy on me during the test. No, I got a better grade than you because I studied really hard and earned it.”

But the prejudice doesn’t just come from her male peers. Chessman said other females often don’t understand why she would want to be an engineer.

“They say it’s too intimidating,” Chessman said. “It looks like too much work. There are plenty of really smart girls out there that could do this kind of thing, but they just don’t want to. They think they can’t do it.”

The gender norms of certain professions – such as female nurses and male engineers – has helped create the current inequailty in some majors, Shoulders said. She said it’s important for schools to recruit men into prodominately female fields and vise-versa.

As an educator, Shoulders said she would like to see more men enter the teaching field.

“I think it would be good for the students to have more positive male role models in the classroom,” she said. “And if they grew up seeing more men as teachers, maybe it would inspire them to chose that career.”