Battle of the sexes, in the classroom
Can you guess which academic departments have mainly male versus female majors? How gendered are the various majors on campus? Many students agree that certain academic departments are dominated by either male or female students. How many female economics majors do you know? Or on the flip side, how many male art majors are there?
Interestingly, the computer science (CS) department has an almost evenly split gender ratio. “My feeling-and research backs this up-is that there is no inherent reason why women should not be interested in or capable of pursuing computer science. Certainly, our [female] majors are very strong students,” Bruce Maxwell, head of the department, said.
Maxwell talked about the efforts the CS department makes to attract both genders. “I believe that the best thing we can possibly do to attract a balanced gender ratio is simply to offer really good courses that are interesting, engaging and challenging,” Maxwell said. “Unfortunately, CS programs around the country are replete with boring introductory courses that have students write programs for toy problems that have little relevance to the world and provide little personal enjoyment.”
On the other hand, the art department fulfills the stereotype of having predominantly female majors. Associate Professor and Chair of Art Bevin Engman said, “Without question our major/minors are largely female although there is certainly a male presence in both art history and studio.” Although the art department has more female majors, Engman stressed that the faculty would “like it to be balanced enough for diverse points of view to be represented and affirmed,” but that typically, “[in the art] studio, the work is so individual that [any effect these lopsided gender ratios have on the class dynamics]…is subtle.”
Becky Newman ’13 is an economics major, a department that is typically known for its high numbers of male students. “I think the difference is definitely noticeable, but I don’t think it affects the dynamics of classes. Professors in the department expect the same of everyone which helps make the difference less apparent,” Newman said.
Is the gender ratio of the faculty indicative of the gender ratio of majors in the department? The math department has ten male faculty members and only one female professor. Although Jan Holly, associate professor and chair of mathematics and statistics, said that the department places importance on “[making] sure that all students, regardless of gender, feel equally welcome.” She noted, however, that there are some cases in which the uneven gender ratio of faculty or students can affect the dynamics in class.
Maxwell seemed to speak for many different departments about how an even gender ratio positively reinforces class dynamics when he said, “It has certainly changed the culture of the department, the lab and student activities for the better. My feeling is that the students appreciate a more even balance. It is certainly uncomfortable for some people to be in a course where they are the only person of their gender.”
Michaela Pembroke ’13, an English major, said, “I haven’t really noticed [the English department] to be a heavily one-sided even though I am aware that it’s usually thought to be a female- dominated major. But it is interesting in classes like critical theory when the majority of the authors [we read] are male and the differing responses we get [from male and female students] in class.”
It seems that many students could benefit from the advice to not let gender norms in certain departments dictate their interests and choice of major. “I think it would be [best] for students to put aside their own biases or stereotypes about who should or should not be a CS major and take a chance. They just might enjoy it,” Maxwell said.