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Certain academic departments note large gender discrepancies among students

Male art history majors, female physics majors hard to find

Published: Thursday, November 12, 2009

Updated: Thursday, November 12, 2009 03:11

Physics Students

Andrew Morgenthaler / Tufts Daily

Some majors attract disporportionate numbers of men or women.

    Junior Rebekah Holtz feels the strain as a female physics major in a field of study dominated by men. Holtz is one of just seven women, compared to 16 men, currently majoring in physics in the College of Liberal Arts at Tufts.

    Holtz said the gender disparity has never made her "uncomfortable" but that it does change her attitude towards her studies.

    "Being in a class with mostly males puts more pressure on me to do well," Holtz said. "Whenever I take a test, I feel that my performance is reflective of women in general. I worry that if I do poorly in a physics class, it reinforces the notion that women may not be as strong in science as men."

    Holtz is enrolled in two physics classes this semester, one of which she said contains four females out of 45 students total.

    This marked gender gap isn't exclusive to physics and other natural sciences, nor does it solely skew in the direction of a male majority. A search of Tufts White Pages found particularly notable discrepancies in art history (five males out of 57 declared majors), computer science (eight females out of 50 declared majors in the College of Liberal Arts) and child development (15 males out of 107 declared majors). The women's studies department currently has no male majors. Women make up close to 30 percent of the School of Engineering's student body, a low proportion despite being nearly double the national average male-to-female engineering student ratio, according to the school's website.

    "The child development major draws mostly women, and this is unfortunate all around," George Scarlett, Child Development Deputy Department Chair, said. "We have fantastic majors, but the major itself would be enriched by the presence of men."

    Scarlett said the significant lack of gender parity within the field of study "isn't because the major and department are better suited to women. It has more to do with misunderstanding than it has to do with people making rational choices about what to major in."

    "The primary misunderstanding has to do with the question, ‘What can you do with a child development major? The correct answer is, ‘Anything you want,'" he said.

    Scarlett cited alumni in health-related professions, public policy, the law, education, psychology and research as examples.

    "Without this understanding that majoring in child development can lead almost anywhere, I think men on campus see it as headed for education careers only and not for careers that men typically gravitate toward … [It] may be that we still live in a culture where the interests of children are associated with women's work," he said.

    Sociology Professor Susan Ostrander, too, cites a sex-segregated work force as a cause for the gender gap in some majors. Ostrander teaches Sociology 30: Sex and Gender in Society, in which the topic of gender roles in the labor force is a component of the curriculum.

    "Some jobs [are] reserved for men and others for women," Ostrander said. "It's not surprising that students often end up in majors that match the kind of paid work they will have later. Only a few women and men defy the odds and major in fields where they are a minority," like women in the natural sciences and men in child development, Ostrander said.

    For Ostrander, a "solution" to the gap could be found in the establishment of "gender equality in paid work," she said. Pay equity in the work force would allow students to choose majors based not on the particular traditional gender association (and correlated earning potential) of a profession, but based on their interest for the subject regardless of societal norms.

    Women, who Ostrander said are more likely than men are to work in professions like teaching, social work, nursing and child development, are currently paid 78 cents for each dollar earned by men, according to a presidential proclamation released in April.

    "The jobs that women are most likely to do are paid less," Ostrander said.

    Still, students majoring in fields of studies traditionally (and statistically) associated with the opposite gender overwhelmingly said they felt comfortable and were not aware of any modicum of classroom sexism.

    "I think it's almost a cycle because the lack of women could make other women feel out of place. But I don't feel uncomfortable because I'm used to it and I don't think it's a big deal," senior physics major Erin van Erp said. "I sometimes wish my classes were more gender-balanced, but I accept that there's something about physics that just appeals to more men than women. I would probably be confused if I had a class that wasn't mostly guys, but no one has ever questioned whether I belong in this major."

    "All that really matters is whether or not [a potential male child development major] is really interested in the study of child development," junior child development major Spencer Ross said. "If child development is really something that he wanted to pursue, then it shouldn't matter that the classes are made up of mostly women."

    According to sophomore physics major Michelle Cohen, "There's nothing wrong with being outnumbered in your field. It would be stupid to turn down a major because it's all guys."

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