This year, roughly 40 percent of the junior class will be studying away either for a semester or full year. 60 percent of those studying away this year are females. These numbers are neither a Williams College phenomenon nor unique to this year: the numbers correlate exactly with national predictions. Reputable researcher Bill Hoffa Consultants International estimates that six out of every ten juniors that study away in a given year are female.
Williams’ sponsored Williams-Mystic maritime studies program experiences an even more extreme gender imbalance. Of the 23 students participating in the Williams-Mystic program this semester, only five are male. The program is 78 percent female.
Dean of International Studies Laura McKeon is strikingly aware of the disproportionate ratio, and although she is unsure why this phenomenon occurs, continues to search for the cause.
There exist several hypotheses regarding this imbalance. McKeon is a member of a listserver between various schools that took up the issue expressly. The e-mail conversation, which took place in 1997, discussed reasons for the discrepancy, and both cited and discounted theories that presume differences between males’ and females’ connections to their campuses.
One theory suggests that fewer women than men play sports, and therefore do not have as much incentive to remain on campus. Williams figures, however, indicate that female athletes are as numerous as male athletes; thus, McKeon does not believe that this can explain Williams numbers.
Another hypothesis suggests that men are more career-driven than women, and thus will choose to remain on campus in pursuit of serious academic rigor more often than females. A member of the listserver noted that this idea assumes that female education is more inclusive of “frivolity” and allows the pursuit of culture for a more worldly, ornamental education, which embraces the traditional European “finishing.” While this may have applied before co-education became mainstream, it is now quite difficult to prove that these quantifiable differences exist in regards to the treatment of males and females in the college environment.
McKeon noted a characteristic specific to Williams that affects study abroad numbers: Division III majors have difficulty finding programs that fulfill their requirements, and thus study away less than Division I and II majors. Division III majors are 55 percent male and 45 percent female in the junior class, and 54 percent male and 46 percent female in the senior class. McKeon noted that this inequality alone does not account for the larger discrepancy in Williams study away numbers. She also added that study abroad programs have shown a growing attention to Division III-type majors.
McKeon and Williams-Mystic Director of Admissions Rush Hambleton have similar beliefs regarding the gender imbalance. The most plausible theory to them is that women are inherently more adventurous than men. Both insist that this hypothesis is in not proven nor based on empirical data, but a mere suggestion that has become a popular opinion of researchers and investigators on the topic.
McKeon adds to this theory by noting that she has encountered multiple groups of males who want to plan to study abroad together, but never a group of females with the same intent. She senses that males seek to travel with their support systems in place, while females seem more likely to travel without a definite social network.
Hambleton concurred with the “adventure” theory, and believes that the Williams-Mystic program could be labeled highly adventurous. The program includes a ten-day voyage and a great deal of traveling. Hambleton also acknowledged, “Just jumping into maritime studies takes an element of adventure in itself.”
National numbers may be influenced by other conditions. Duke University study away officer Sara Dumont, a member of the e-mail listserver, suggested that fraternities play a part in the decision to leave campus for study away opportunities. “We have had some large clumps of male students studying abroad – they all want to go together to the same place – and it transpires that these clumps usually belong to the same fraternity. If someone can’t go to the same place as all his buddies, he tends not to go at all, rather than choose a different site.” Dumont hypothesized that the reason for this hesitance has a correlation with maturity levels. “Fraternities do the exact opposite of helping anyone develop a sense of maturity in their social behavior,” she wrote.
Interestingly, last year’s Williams study away students who traveled abroad to more obscure destinations like Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe were all female, study away figures indicate. Certainly many males traveled to locations that could easily be labeled “adventurous,” but an overwhelming female majority experienced the less common and more exotic study abroad destinations.
Nicole Steinmuller ’00, who studied last fall at London University, noted that her program’s numbers were consistent with the trend. “There were about 30 girls in the program and ten guys,” she explained. Steinmuller believed studying abroad to be challenging, and acknowledged that it seemed to appeal more to females than males. “It takes a lot out of you to go away, “ she said. “It’s a huge change from home and can be very scary. I think this held some people back from going away.”
Joe Sensenbrenner ’00, who chose not to study away his junior year, explained that the discrepancy in the male to female ratio was not evident to him. Sensenbrenner noted that most of his close friends, both male and female, did go abroad. He also noticed that while most of his friends went away independently, the females were the ones who planned to meet up while away.
Regardless of whether or not the “adventure-theory” statements are responsible for the trend, the study abroad numbers do not seem to be evening out, contrary to what study away officers had hoped. Hambleton asserted that the gender imbalance, especially at the Williams-Mystic program, is problematic and most definitely considered in recruiting tactics. Williams-Mystic representatives make sure to emphasize the ways in which Williams-Mystic can fit in with “career-building.” Hambleton stressed that the Williams-Mystic program is not legitimizing the claim that the imbalance is due to a dominantly male career-oriented population, but attempts to cover all possible reasons why male interest in the program remains low.
Those involved with study abroad continue to delve deeper into this issue and discover a provable theory that can illuminate these patterns. Meanwhile, get used to seeing more junior guys than girls around campus.