The Culture of Some Colleges May Foster Gender Segregation by Major, Study Finds

August 22, 2011

Certain colleges may have cultures that nudge female students into stereotypically female fields and men into stereotypically male ones, suggests a study whose findings are slated to be presented here on Tuesday at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association.

Colleges that have relatively few women among their tenured faculty members and exceptionally small numbers of men among their undergraduates generally have higher levels of gender segregation by major than do other institutions, the study found. So do colleges with football teams in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, suggesting that those with athletic programs that emphasize male-dominated sports are less likely to encourage the gender integration of various academic fields, according to a paper summarizing the study's results.

Colleges that promote study in the liberal arts, by contrast, tend to have more students go into fields traditionally associated with members of the opposite sex, the paper says.

"Institutions that can be considered more highly gendered, such as those with a strong commitment to male-dominated athletic teams, a weak commitment to including women in the power structure, and a weak commitment to training students in critical thinking and independent thought, are considerably more segregated than would be predicted based on the degrees they award," the paper says.

"It is conceivable," the paper adds, "that institutions such as these create and promote an institutional culture based on strong distinctions of masculinity and feminity," and that culture "then influences the options that become more thinkable and unthinkable for students as they choose their field of study."

The paper's authors are Jayne Baker, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Toronto, and Ann L. Mullen, an associate professor of sociology there. They based their analysis on federal data on nearly 1.3 million students who earned bachelor's degrees from one of about 1,400 colleges in the United States during the 2004-5 academic year. The data were collected by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics as part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Patterns of Causation in Question

The study clearly has its limitations. The presence of a Division III football team at a college, for example, is a fairly narrow basis for concluding that the college is strongly committed to male-dominated intercollegiate sports. According to the researchers' paper, the model they constructed for trying to predict gender segregation by field was able to explain about 40 percent—a large share, but hardly all—of the difference between the actual levels of segregation by field at colleges and the levels that would be predicted based on national averages and a given college's enrollments of men and women.

In an interview last week, Ms. Mullen said it was difficult to establish patterns of causation based on the study's findings. While it may be that colleges that strongly support male-dominated sports somehow encourage students to enter fields dominated by their own gender, it might also be the case that such colleges attract students who are more traditonalist in their thinking about their fields of study, or both forces might be at work. Nevertheless, Ms. Mullen said, the study's findings should give college presidents cause to "reflect on what kinds of messages they are sending to all of their students" by taking actions such as emphasizing male-dominated athletics teams.

The researchers' paper says, "Our results show strong support for the finding that institutional characteristics do make a difference." Although students may self-select into academic fields based partly on perceived levels of gender segregation, the fact that more than half of undergraduates change their major between their freshman and senior years suggests that students alter their decisions in response to their experience on a campus.

Maria Charles, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has extensively examined sex segregation by field of study, called the paper by Ms. Baker and Ms. Mullen "an important contribution."

"Analyses of how organizational characteristics of universities affect patterns of gender inequality within them have been surprisingly few and far between," Ms. Charles said in an e-mail last week.

Traditional Gender Paths

In its discussion of which variables Ms. Baker and Ms. Mullen focused on, the paper says a college with fewer women among tenured faculty members than might be expected is probably more male-dominated than is the norm. At colleges with enrollments that are highly unbalanced in terms of gender, students whose sex is unrepresented on their campus might fear feeling doubly isolated if they enter fields dominated by the opposite sex.

Colleges that offer primarily liberal-arts degrees are likely to be more committed to the liberal-arts ideal of education, and to encourage independent thinking, critical thought, and other habits of mind that encourage students to challenge traditional gender paths. And the presence of a Division III football team is probably a tip-off to gender segregation because other research has shown that athletics strongly influences the culture of Division III colleges, and that Division III colleges have strong patterns of gender segregation in the fields studied by their athletes.

In determining whether various fields within a college had high or low levels of gender segregation, the researchers took into account national figures for the number of men and women who earned degrees in that field in the 2004-5 academic year. They used regression analysis to try to statistically rule out the effects of race, class, geography, college selectivity, and other factors unrelated to gender.

In interpreting the researchers' finding that women who are a distinct minority on their campuses are not more likely to choose fields dominated by women than those elsewhere, the paper suggests that many women who choose to attend predominantly male institutions already are nontraditional in their thinking.

The paper says the study found that "gender segregation cuts across all types of institutions" and does not vary based on institutional selectivity.