Gender disparities remain in many academic fields

by Anna Parachkevova | 11/21/03 6:00am

After 30 years of coeducation at Dartmouth, sciences and social sciences continue to attract more males, while humanities and academic programs are female-dominated.

According to women, lack of confidence is the main cause of the disparity and gaining confidence the key to resolving it. However, men contacted by The Dartmouth did not see similar confidence-building steps as necessary to increase the numbers of males in humanities programs.

During the last five years, from 1998 to 2002, 57 percent of science majors and 53 percent of social science majors were male, according to the "Investigation into the Impact of Gender on Major Choice at Dartmouth," a report compiled by a student group for a women and gender studies course project.

On the other side of the gender division, 58 percent of humanities majors are women, and of those majoring in Academic Programs, 61 percent are women.

The disparities became even more pronounced when one looks at specific academic departments. In 2003, 55 males and only 13 females graduated with a degree in computer science. In the English department, the class of 2004 has 58 female majors and only 38 males.

The ratio of male to female professors matches the gender disparities in both science and humanities classes at Dartmouth. In the year 2002-2003 women constituted 55.9 percent of the junior faculty in humanities, but only 26.1 percent in sciences, according to the "Affirmative Action Report" released by the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity.

When asked by The Dartmouth for information on majors by gender, the Office of the Registrar declined to provide information beyond that posted by the Office of Institutional Research on its webpage. The posted information made no reference to gender.

Department heads and faculty contacted by The Dartmouth said it was a misconception that women instinctively lack interest in science. Instead, they said this lack interest stems from women's lack of self-confidence in these areas.

"In introductory classes, women express as much interest in science as men do, but their numbers decrease in more advanced classes," noted Scot Drysdale, chair of the computer science department.

Drysdale explained that girls often do not have a strong background with computers because they do not receive the same encouragement as boys do early on in their childhood.

One exception to the trend of males avoiding humanities programs is Steve Zyck '04, the only male majoring in women and gender studies from the class of 2004.

" It is a stigmatized field, and many people do not consider it a real academic discipline. My family was very opposed to the idea initially," Zyck said.

Administrators and department heads are taking steps to combat the disparity.

"Having role models is key to encouraging women to pursue an interest in science," said Kathy Weaver, the assistant director of the Women in Science Project.

"Recruiting more female faculty has been one of the strategies to attract more undergraduate women to major in math," said Dana Williams, chair of the department. WISP's other efforts to encourage women to pursue a career in sciences include a mentoring program, internship opportunities and access to information.

Although advocates' war to achieve gender parity in academia is not over, they have won some battles, at least at Dartmouth.

Since 1990, the proportion of women receiving science degrees has doubled from 24 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 1997, according to WISP.

Other statistics released by WISP show that women are currently well represented in chemistry, biology and earth sciences. Departments such as physics, computer science and engineering continue to lag behind.

While support networks like WISP aim to create a sense of community among women in science, no such network exists to support men with a strong interest in humanities.

"The fact that I am one of a few males in a class full of female students does not affect my confidence. It does not factor into my participation or performance in class," said Robert Baca '04, an English major.

Women with a similar attitude also tend to thrive in sciences. Julia Ott '05, a computer engineering major, attributes her success to her solid background in math and science and the support of her family.

"It all comes down to your attitude. If you have any confidence issues, it is much harder," she said.