Nationwide, women enrollment across college campuses has taken precedence over what used to be a predominantly male space. Although more women are investing in higher education, there still seem to be certain majors that favor female enrollment over traditionally male studies.
At the University of Rhode Island the enrollment of gendered majors holds true to common conceptions of what careers men and women choose to study.
Sociology Professor Helen Mederer, jointly appointed by the Schmidt Labor Research Center, said that there could be various factors to why women are continually enrolling in normally female populated majors. Men are generally found in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) majors, which generates the socially constructed ideal worker norm.
Data from the Office of Institutional Research at the university, specifically from fall 2014 of single-major students, shows the STEM majors are generally dominated by men. Apart from nursing, of whom 90 percent are women, and psychology (BA), 77 percent women, the majority of enrollment is held by men. Within computer science, 87 percent are men, 92 percent within the mechanical engineering degree and 63 percent are men mathematics (BS) majors.
“It’s more difficult for women to be ideal workers,” said Mederer. “[The ideal worker] leaves family behind, doesn’t talk about family in the workplace and work overrides family time.”
URI, along with all other colleges, are federally required to collect enrollment data that breaks down numbers by ethnicity, race and gender. The data collected at the university is not analyzed in depth, said Gary Boden, senior information technologist.
“The data is used when departments are doing academic program reviews, grant preparation or to assess overall enrollment,” said Boden.
Women are commonly found in the humanities, liberal arts and traditionally gendered majors in the sciences like nursing or pharmacy. Popular majors within non-STEM majors include communication studies, which is slightly over half with 55 percent women, 67 percent of English majors are women and 63 percent are art majors.
Mederer said there is less of a discrepancy between men and women in the STEM majors during the beginning of students’ educational tracks. As it progresses, women tend to drop out of the male-dominated majors.
“[The idea that] women can’t handle the rigor of science is just not true,” said Mederer. “Society puts men in the workforce and pushes women into caregiving.” Women begin to learn that STEM careers, which Mederer referred to as “working drones disciplines”, do not favor caregiving, and receiving parental paid leave is less likely than in non STEM careers. The data provided by the university does not follow individual students so it is impossible to track students’ progression throughout their four years.
“It’s hard to find the cause for increases in enrollment,” said Boden. Mederer also said it is important to acknowledge that economic contexts are important to consider when finding the causes for numbers in enrollment.
The ideal worker norm is not so embedded in femininity, which Mederer said ends up being detrimental for both men and women. Jessica Brown, a senior finance major, who was ranked seventh in the finance department within the business school as of Spring 2013, said it is rare to have more than five or six women in her finance classes.
“I think [the reason] finance is predominantly male is because it is a money driven field,” said Brown. “Women are intimidated by the male dominance and also by its difficulty.” In generalized terms, Brown said her classes are about an 8-to-2 men to women ratio.
The culture may be changing in other disciplines though, in Mederer’s 30-some years of teaching, she has seen a shift in sociology’s enrollment.
“Men seem more interested and willing to look at ideas of gender,” said Mederer. “It’s a slow increase,” but it is related to national data that shows men increasingly spending more time with their children.
According to the NSCW’s most recent data “Times Are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and at Home”, “Today’s Millenial fathers spend an average of 4.3 hours per workday with their children under 13, significantly more than their age counterparts in 1977 who spend an average of 2.4 hours per workday with their children- a dramatic increase of almost two hours.”
How do we sway more women to join STEM majors? Mederer was part of a university initiative that began in 2003, the ADVANCE project, to hire 10 new women faculty positions within the STEM majors. Mederer said that if students interact with female professors within their majors, they would be more likely to stick with the traditionally male major. ADVANCE also created paid leave with job security and other policies to encourage the balance of caregiving and work life.
“There needs to be change in the ideal worker norm to someone who can effectively balance work and family,” to see societal shifts, said Mederer. Mederer said the millennial generation is promising in making that happen.