Students and faculty consider major distribution demographics

As members of the Class of 2013 declare their majors this week, past evidence indicates that their selections may fall in line with certain trends with regards to gender distribution.

In the Class of 2010, biology, comparative literature, English, psychology, theatre, art and women’s and gender studies (now women’s, gender and sexuality studies) were heavily skewed, garnering far more female majors than males. Conversely, male majors dominated computer science, mathematics, physics, music, economics and political economy.

While the sources of these trends remain unclear, students and faculty provided insights into the discrepancy and thoughts on whether or not it should be viewed as an issue.

Possible causes

According to Chris Winters, director of institutional research, part of the discrepancy in major enrollment may stem from the crop of students admitted to the College. “If there is a skew in pre-college interests, you’d expect a skew in ultimate major counts,” he said.

Students point to academic background prior to enrollment at the College as a determinant for major choice. Particular experience in one field or another may have the power to deter or encourage that student to pursue it in higher education.

Another factor is the students who choose to matriculate out of those accepted.

Upon arrival at the College, the gender of professors in each department could also contribute as a factor. Betty Zimmerberg, chair of the psychology department, accredits the breakdown in large part to the number of female faculty members within the department.

Psychology yielded 39 female majors and 18 male majors in the class of 2010. This year, the department expects 50 females and 21 males to graduate with a degree in psychology. The department includes seven female professors and eight males currently and is amongst the most balanced at the College.

“It’s important to have women faculty. Whenever there are women in the faculty, more women students can see role models within that discipline,” Zimmerberg said. “It’s a combination of the fact that women are welcome in this field and that women see many possible career paths in psychology that has led to these numbers.”

Certain fields too have historical reputations of attracting a specific gender. Mathematics, for example, is largely viewed as a male field from an early age, whereas psychology, which can have greater application in education and helping professions, according to Zimmerberg, is a more established path for female students.

“The gender imbalance in our enrollments is not a local phenomenon,” according to Chair and Professor of Computer Science Tom Murtagh. Computer science yielded 12 majors in 2010, 10 of whom were male and four who were international.

“It is a national – and somewhat international – problem for computer science,” he said. “Educators in our field have been studying this issue for some time, and there has been considerable research on teaching methods that might broaden the appeal of our discipline.”

Despite widespread knowledge of imbalances, little has been done to indicate their effect at the College and in student life.

Influence in the classroom

The former women’s and gender studies program produced four majors last year, all of whom were female. Comparative literature too had all female majors.

Johannes Wilson ’11 will be the College’s first-ever male women’s, gender and sexuality studies major. The major officially altered its name from women’s and gender studies to include sexuality earlier this semester. Wilson is also majoring in psychology.

“I’ve never felt uncomfortable being the only guy in my women’s and gender studies classes,” Wilson said. “Yet I do realize that I speak out a lot more in my psychology classes, which are relatively more balanced.”

Wilson did not let the scarcity of men in his classes dissuade him from the major. He has become more cognizant of “male privileges” as a result of his course work. In a vast number of his women’s, gender and sexuality studies courses, Wilson was the only male.

“I feel right at home in women’s and gender studies classes because I’m talking about what I care about,” he said. “I’m far more aware of the gender dynamics in a women’s and gender studies class. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable; it just adds to the learning experience for me.”

Wilson considers stereotypes an illegitimate impediment to academic pursuits. “People distance themselves more based on stereotypical judgments as opposed to substantive knowledge of the major,” he said.

Conversely, in traditionally male-dominated fields, fewer women were noted to have defied traditional stereotypes.

Alice Sady ’13, who is declaring a double major in astrophysics and music, came in with clear expectations of what she hoped to study at the College. While Sady has never been treated differently on account of immutable characteristics, she has noted the influence of gender imbalances in her male-dominated classes.

“There are times when I just look around as a Hispanic woman and kind of feel like maybe I don’t belong here, maybe this isn’t something I should be doing,” Sady said, “but at the same time, I feel this is something I need to do so that women and minorities will feel more comfortable going forward.”

The Class of 2010 did not produce a female Hispanic major in astrophysics, physics or music. There were 25 female Hispanic graduates in the class. Sady hopes to “break these barriers” in her College career and ultimately become a professor to encourage future generations to enter her field.

“I never had to think about race or gender in terms of my academics until I came here,” she said. “I know that other people have had experiences because of their race and gender that have deterred them from Div. III.”

Sady echoed sentiments about professors as role models: Dean Bolton formerly was the sole female professor within the physics department. However, as dean of the College, Bolton is not currently teaching, and the department is left the department without a female professor. Last year, the department graduated five times as many male physics majors as female majors.

“Ultimately, I don’t want to be defined by my race or gender, so I tend not to think about it as something that should deter me from doing what I want to do, and I would hope that others don’t either,” Sady said. “Although, I’m sure there are some others who think it is strange that I would have chosen my majors considering who I am.”

The economics department too has consistently struggled with roughly 2 to 1 enrollment of males to females, respectively. Last year, the department had 53 male majors and 25 female majors.

“I don’t have any good explanation for this fact but would note that the ratio has been relatively steady for some time,” said David Zimmerman, professor of economics and department chair. “It’s possible that the gap has something to do with our curriculum or the gender distribution of our faculty, and we’re certainly always trying to improve on both these margins.”

Psychology, which is listed primarily within Div. II, and biology, in Div. III, are unique examples of majors in the sciences that women dominate at the College.

“We’re really proud that we’ve attracted so many women to the psychological sciences and are proud to see so many women in a science major,” Zimmerberg said.

Assigning significance to imbalances

While awareness of gender and race is gaining momentum, the appropriate response to these imbalances is yet to be determined. Certain departments actively seek to remedy all imbalances, whereas others do not view it as cause for concern.

Potential benefits from reexamining enrollment include increasingly fruitful class discussion and a greater set of role models for students in all academic disciplines.

“The major would certainly benefit from having a wider variety of perspectives in the classroom,” Wilson said, “but the discussion now already reflects a wide array of opinions.”

“If there are departments which have an imbalance of few women faculty members and seem to attract few female students, that’s something that should be considered,” Zimmerberg said.

“Different people declare different majors for a variety of different reasons. Engineering distribution seems wrong. I’d rather people major in what they are most interested in, and if that creates a skewed balance, so be it,” Associate Professor of Psychology Noah Sandstrom said. “I’d love to have a balanced distribution in my courses, because men and women may bring different things to the table, but I’d prioritize having intellectually engaged students above having an equal number of males and females.”

Currently, there is no singular approach from the College that suffices; instead, both professors and students are left to their own devices to choose the appropriate means to achieve balance within their departments.

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