Why are there gender preferences for some university courses?

by Marc Wilson / 08 March, 2018

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Photo/Getty Images

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Tertiary enrolment, particularly at the top level, is increasingly female, but there are marked gender preferences for some courses.

In 1999, I was one of 47 to graduate from Victoria University wearing the baggy black bonnet that means a PhD. In 2017, more than three times as many PhDs graduated from Victoria. The trend is global. Universities have hugely increased the number of students they enrol, and more and more of them are hanging around until they go as high up the qualification ladder as they can. It beats making a decision about what to do with your life; well, it did in my case.

Another thing that has changed in the past 18 years is the gender breakdown of those graduates. In 1999, a shade over half of the newly minted doctors were women; now, it’s just over 60%. This is also an international trend: women are increasingly entering tertiary education, and they tend to hang around longer than the men. The Ministry of Education’s enrolment statistics for 2016 – the most recent available – show that 56% of tertiary students are female; men outnumber women only in the lowest level of tertiary certificates, where they make up 57% of the student cohort.

What these numbers obscure is that there are marked gender differences in enrolments for different courses of study. The young women who walk into my first-year psychology class are no doubt grateful that there are so few of those annoying boys (they make up only 29% of the class). The lads, however (well, the heterosexual ones), probably think their chances of meeting a life partner are much better than in philosophy – and statistically, they’re right; the gender balance in philosophy is almost the opposite.

Numbers are similar in the US: 70% of psychology PhDs are women, but in philosophy it’s about 30%. In the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), only molecular biology enrols more women (55%) than men; in computer science and physics, women make up less than 20% of enrolments.

Working out why this is keeps Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor at New York University, up at night. He’s done a few cool things to look into this, including asking people who teach and study in different disciplines to tell him a bit about themselves and their areas of study.

Andrei Cimpian. Photo/L. Brian Stauffer

Perhaps it’s that physics and engineering are more selective than psychology and art history (more than 75% female). Well, no. Medicine is pretty selective and more women are training to become doctors. In fact, Cimpian and his colleagues show that, if anything, women are better represented in courses for which entry criteria are tougher.

So, maybe the disciplines in which more women enrol are, ahem, more “girly”: you know, they involve less-systematic and abstract thinking, and more hugs and empathy? First, this is a stereotype. And second, the answer is a complicated “no”. Women are more likely to enter disciplines in which they perceive empathising to be important, but not the need for systematic abstract thinking.

But that difference is trumped by this killer explanation: different disciplines also have their own stereotypes, and the ones in which there are more males tend to be the ones for which brilliance is considered – by both men and women – as a necessity. What is more, both men and women think that men are more likely to have that brilliance. And, no, this isn’t because men are on average smarter, or that people who study philosophy are more brilliant – though they’re disproportionately men.

In a test of this notion, Cimpian’s researchers looked at the language used in more than 14 million reviews of university professors (on RateMyProfessors.com). Here, enthusiastic learners can rate and comment on their teachers and were significantly more likely to use the words “genius” and “brilliant” to describe those in male-dominated fields. And, yes, I did look myself up: the word “brilliant” was not used.

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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