Men and Women Differ in How They Decide to Study Abroad, Study Finds

November 06, 2009

Women appear to be much more likely than men to choose to study abroad because of significant gender-based differences in how students are influenced by their backgrounds, academic environments, and social interactions, according to research results being presented here this week as part of the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

The findings suggest that advocates of study-abroad programs "need to craft targeted marketing strategies that recognize and account for key differences between women and men," says a paper summarizing the results of a study by three researchers at the University of Iowa.

"While intent to study abroad among women seems to be affected by influential authority figures and educational contexts," the paper says, "intent to study abroad among men seems to be primarily shaped by emerging personal values, experiences, and peer influence."

The key question the study sought to tackle was why women are almost twice as likely as men to embark on foreign study. Although the gender gap is sometimes assumed to simply reflect the preponderance of women in the fine arts, foreign languages, and other humanities majors heavily represented in foreign-study programs, the reality is that it exists even in male-dominated majors such as engineering and the hard sciences.

Mark Salisbury, a research assistant at Iowa's Center for Research on Undergraduate Education, and Michael B. Paulsen and Ernest T. Pascarella, both professors of higher education there, based their analysis on data about some 2,800 students at 19 four-year and two-year colleges and universities participating in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. The students were surveyed by the Wabash-study researchers shortly after entering college as freshmen in the fall of 2006 and were asked about their intent to study abroad when surveyed again in the spring of 2007.

In crunching the survey data to determine what had influenced students' decisions to study abroad, the researchers found marked differences in how the different genders responded to different forces in their lives.

Having highly educated parents appeared to make women more likely to intend to study abroad, but it did not have any effect on men's intentions, reflecting the broader observation among researchers that women are more likely to make college-going decisions based on their parents' preferences.

Similarly, taking classes that focus on human diversity and differences appeared to leave women more likely to intend to study abroad but did not have an impact on men, suggesting that, just as women are more influenced by their parents than are men, they may be more influenced by faculty members or, at least, the courses that faculty members teach.

The Iowa researchers also found that:

  • The more men interacted with their peers, the less likely they were to intend to study abroad. Peer interactions did not have such an impact on women.
  • Women, but not men, who attended regional institutions or community colleges were less likely than those attending liberal-arts colleges to intend to study abroad. The researchers speculated that perhaps "something about the educational culture at regional institutions and community colleges is negatively affecting women's intent to study abroad," or that perhaps "women attending these institutions are impacted by additional obligations such as family or parenting responsibilities that preclude the possibility of studying abroad."
  • Being undecided on a major appeared to leave men substantially more likely to choose to study abroad but not to have any significant impact on women.
  • In some cases, culture and gender appeared to interact. Asian-American men, but not Asian-American women, were significantly less likely than white students to intend to study abroad. And although Hispanic men and white men were equally likely to intend to study abroad, Hispanic women were significantly more likely to intend to study abroad than were white women.