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The Dartmouth
June 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Despite efforts, many majors remain predominantly male

The age of "Girls can't do science" is gone, relegated almost entirely to mockery on poorly written sitcoms. Nonetheless, a lot of majors remain dominated by a single sex, both numerically and in spirit.

This effect comes from what some call "major migration," or the movement of members of one gender away from their original major choice. For example, about equal numbers of men and women express interest in the sciences at the beginning of college, but fewer women actually end up majoring in the science fields.

The reasons behind such a migration are complicated, and educators have proposed everything from genetic differences between the sexes to deep-rooted misogyny in education. One thing is known, however: women are in the minority in science classes, and that this exerts psychological pressure on them.

Despite its late start at admitting women, over the past 20 years Dartmouth has made tremendous progress towards gender equality in the classroom. According to data from the Women in Sciences Project, women in the Class of 2002 comprised 20 percent more of the College's science majors than they did in 1982 -- a sizable gain that places Dartmouth about on par with the rest of the nation.

Even so, some departments still face unequal gender representation. Clara Lee '03, a computer science major, has noticed this phenomenon in her classes.

"I think there's this feeling that in order to compete with the guys [in computer science] you have to be the very best," she said. "It's too male-dominated otherwise."

But what exactly does "male-dominated" mean?

Lee said that in computer science, "males tend to talk a lot more -- mostly about how well they're doing," and that this can make it more difficult for female students to ask for help.

Uneven class participation is common outside the sciences, too.

Government Professor Linda Fowler suggested that men tend to dominate discussions in her classes.

"The verbal space in the classroom tends to be taken up by men, and one has to be a fairly adroit moderator to prevent that," she said.

Not all female students -- even in the sciences -- feel this way, however.

"The guys aren't a fraternity at the engineering school," April Mohns '03 said. "I've been to frats, and you feel like you're in a male-dominated space. It's not like that at the engineering school -- men and women work together as a community."

Another factor that may discourage women from majoring in sciences is the simple fact that they are, after all, a minority, and therefore feel more isolated.

"Guys just have a more traditionally established network, and I don't think a lot of people realize that that's still an issue in 2002," WISP Project Coordinator Deborah Pelton said. "We don't want women to leave [science] for the wrong reasons. It's just about connecting women."

WISP is devoted to doing just that. It provides internships, mentoring programs and forums for women in science.

The results have been fairly remarkable. At the program's inception in 1990, only one woman was a declared physics major. Now, according to department chair Mary Kay Hudson, the level of women has risen above 20 percent in undergraduate study and one third in the graduate program.

Of course, WISP has not been the only factor to bolster female participation in physics, or in any of the other sciences. According to Hudson, major migration is only a problem in the physics department before junior year, when most students declare their majors. Presenting students in introductory courses with role models of both sexes is therefore crucial to attracting women majors.

"The best recruiting tool has been example," she said.

The College's emphasis on gaining women faculty has provided female role models in the physics department, as have the many women to recently enter the department's graduate program. This female presence in laboratories and the classroom "has a positive impact" on undergraduate majors and potential majors, Hudson said.

Lee, though majoring in a different department, agreed. She said that while she never really felt opposed by male students or faculty, connecting with her section leader -- the computer science equivalent of a teacing assistant -- and supportive female professors helped her in computer science.

"My section leader was so great. It was, for me at least, easy to talk to her when I needed help, easy to say 'I'm confused,'" she said.

The pressure of gender disparity within a major can also work the other way.

Men, too, can be singled out in classes where they are a small minority.

"In cases of men in a class with few men, or women in a class with few women, the danger is that they can be put on the spot as the experts for their entire sex," co-chair of the women and gender studies department Susan Ackerman said. "It's unfair to ask three men in a seminar to speak for all of male humanity."

In general, however, in majors where females make up a majority, there seems to be a more equal discussion forum for the sexes.

"I have noticed that a lot of the most active English majors are female," English major Ben Weaver '03 said. "But it doesn't create a stigma in the class. There have been rock stars from both sides."

The women's and gender studies major, though primarily female, does not fall under the same kind of scrutiny as science majors for having unequal gender distribution. Instead, this disparity is explained simply by interest level.

"In courses that concentrate primarily on issues having to do with women, the people who are going to be most interested in those issues are the people who live them in their day to day lives," Ackerman said.