Women Abroad and Men at Home

Persistent gender gap in study abroad, even as total enrollments rise, puzzles many experts.
December 4, 2008

Truett Cates was scanning a wall of study abroad brochures across from his desk. “Let me put on my bifocals here -- just a quick impression -- I see one brochure for Australia and New Zealand, which has one guy on the cover of it,” said Cates, the director of study abroad and January term, and a professor of German, at Austin College. “Of course, if you’re a guy who doesn’t do languages, Australia and New Zealand are attractive and you can do guy things like kayaking and bungee jumping and so forth, pub crawling.”

“Some of them do have groups of students which are like, five girls and one guy, or three girls – or I guess also pictures of girls that attract guys. Maybe that’s part of it,” Cates continued.

“What I've done is look at all the brochures that the providers, the third-party providers, put out, and in the brochures and the nice color photographs they use to sell their programs, it’s almost all women and I ask them, ‘Why do they do that?’ They say it’s just a marketing decision; that’s who our customers are.”

It's truth in advertising. Take Austin, for example, which, at about 80 percent, sends one of the highest proportions of its students abroad. But even with that critical mass, out of 390 total in 2006-7, 248 were women and 142 were men (like at many liberal arts colleges, Austin's overall undergraduate population skews somewhat female, but not to the same degree).

In recent years, as study abroad has ballooned across the nation, fueled by growth in short-term programs and increasing diversity in participating students’ majors and destinations, a 2-to-1 female-to-male ratio has stayed remarkably stagnant. In 2006-7, the most recent year for which data are available, 65.1 percent of Americans studying abroad were women, and 34.9 percent men. A decade earlier -- when the total number of study abroad students was less than half its current total -- the breakdown was 64.9 percent female, 35.1 percent male, according to Institute of International Education Open Doors statistics.

“I wouldn’t put it up there among the top issues or problems in the field, but I think it’s a puzzlement, to use an old term, and it’s sort of a persistent consideration, a persistent sort of annoying feeling that there’s something not right about it,” said William Hoffa, an independent practitioner in study abroad, retired from Amherst College, who wrote a history of study abroad and is now editing a second volume.

“Initially the problem was perceived to be curricular, meaning the curriculum of study abroad was likely to be in the humanities, social sciences, with a strong language dimension. To the degree that women were more likely to study in those areas, and the curriculum of study abroad was in those areas, it meant men that were studying more in science and business and technologies didn’t have the curriculum overseas,” said Hoffa. He continued, however, that while there’s likely still a bias toward the humanities and social sciences in study abroad, “The curriculum of study abroad is actually pretty much across the spectrum these days.”

The most popular majors among study abroad participants are, according to IIE, the social sciences, then business and management, and humanities third. Participation among students in the physical and life sciences jumped 14.5 percent in 2006-7, in engineering by 13.1 percent. The overall gender breakdown, meanwhile, has basically stayed flat.

“To some degree,” said Hoffa, “it can’t just be the curriculum.”

Disproportional Representation

The persistent gender gap is regularly described as an object of interest in the field -- if not an object of intense concern compared to, for instance, the similarly stagnant and low numbers of racial minorities studying abroad. (“I’ve made myself a little unpopular occasionally when I’ve been in sessions on under-represented groups in study abroad and I bring up the issue of men in study abroad,” Hoffa said.)

There are lots of theories, but a sense that, in sum, they don’t satisfactorily explain the phenomenon. There are a few studies and surveys, but not a deep research basis to draw from. “It still does exist as a good research piece for somebody to delve more closely into," said Steven W. Shirley, president of Valley City State University, in North Dakota. Shirley did his dissertation on differences in how male and female students perceive study abroad. In short, he said, the differences he found were few.

So to begin at the beginning: The study abroad gender gap can only begin to be understood against the backdrop of gendered enrollments in higher education more generally.

According to an October report from the U.S. Department of Education, 58 percent of four-year degrees awarded in 2006-7 went to women, and 42 percent to men (most students studying abroad are coming from four-year colleges). Meanwhile, according to an analysis of Department of Education data conducted by IIE, overall female enrollment in higher education rose by 27 percent from 1995 to 2005, compared to 18 percent growth for males.

Given this backdrop, “it’s not surprising that the percentage of males in study abroad has not gotten higher,” said Peggy Blumenthal, IIE’s executive vice president. “They’re holding their own in study abroad even while their percentage of higher education enrollment is not growing as fast as females.

“That being said, still we need to work harder to make sure that men do get equal opportunities to study abroad and feel that they can go abroad, whatever their major.”

The data suggest that, overall enrollment numbers aside, and for whatever reasons, women are more drawn to study abroad than men. Even in a field where men substantially outnumber women -- engineering -- study abroad's particular appeal to female students shines through, in this case all the more dramatically. The National Science Foundation reports that men earn 80 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering. But women's participation in a study abroad consortium for engineers, the Global Engineering Education Exchange, typically ranges from 30 to nearly 40 percent (39.3 percent this academic year) -- far outstripping their 20 percent representation in the field.

"The women appear to exceed the men in terms of their interest in going abroad," said Lester Gerhardt, a professor of electrical, computer and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and chair of the study abroad consortium's board. “Where do you go from there? You wonder the reasons why."

'A Female Thing'

Among the many conventional wisdom-type explanations pervading in the study abroad field: differing maturity and risk-taking levels among 18- to 21-year-old men and women; a sense that females, concerned about safety, are more inclined to attend a college-sanctioned study abroad program than travel on their own; and, again, varying study abroad participation rates in male versus female-dominated fields.

The latter is not the seemingly clear explanation it once was, but many still see it as a contributing factor. At the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, for instance, 141 students in the Institute of Technology studied abroad last year, and 92 were male. “That’s still not a great overall participation number” – Minnesota sends 1,200 from the College of Liberal Arts, most of them women – “but theoretically if you improve participation in that group, suddenly you’d be changing the gender breakdown,” said Martha Johnson, interim director of the Learning Abroad Center.

Inside Higher Ed contacted several universities sending some of the largest numbers of total students abroad to see how their gender breakdowns have changed as their numbers have grown. Their answers? Not much.

For instance, at the University of Florida in 2007-8, 1,408 women (63 percent) went abroad, and 814 men (37 percent), for a total of 2,222. The proportions were nearly identical in 2000-1, when the total was just 1,367, according to data provided by Susanne Hill, interim executive associate director of Florida's International Center and study abroad services coordinator. Female representation within the overall university enrollment changed from 52 to 53 percent in that time.

The University of Georgia in 2003-4 sent abroad 1,008 females and 526 males (and 38 students whose gender was not identified). In 2007-8, there were 1,428 females and 664 males, with 9 unidentified, according to Kasee Clifton Laster, director of study abroad. “My impression is that the proportion by gender has been rather consistent over time, even as participation overall has grown quickly and participation in certain subgroups (for example, at UGA, graduate and professional students such as law students) has grown even faster,” Laster said in an e-mail.

Particularly perplexing to some is that the large growth in short-term study abroad programs, which now make up 55.4 percent of the market (IIE data again), hasn't led to a shift in the gender balance. Presumably, these programs address some of the conventional explanations for the gender imbalance: They're generally less risky, and summer programs are often ideal for curricularly-restricted, mostly male engineering students, to take an example.

Nationally, there are no data about gender breakdown by duration of program. But at one institution, Wofford College, in South Carolina, the gender balance in short-term programs is close to 50-50, skewing just slightly female. Whereas, this fall, 30 Wofford women are abroad on semester-long programs compared to 10 men, according to Ana María Wiseman, the dean of international programs. "On our campus, if a certain topic is popular, you might get just a group of students enthused to go on a certain short-term program... whereas [longer-term] study abroad is very much an individual decision."

Speaking from a somewhat unique perspective, David Clapp, director of the Office of International Students and Off-Campus Study at Wabash College, an all-male liberal arts college in Indiana, said his students seem liberated from almost subliminal stereotypes about study abroad that he noticed at a coed college where he used to work. "My study abroad students [there] were heavily female, and I think that there may be an impression that young men get when they’re at a coed university or college that that’s a female thing to do."

Expectations and Experience

So why do female students do it? In her master’s research in cultural anthropology, Jill McKinney focused on female students' decision-making in regards to study abroad. “The three main factors I found were motherhood, age and safety,” said McKinney, associate director of the Center for Global Education at Butler University. “Essentially, my informants shared with me that they really hope someday to be mothers and they can’t imagine being able to travel abroad and also be a mom. So if they’re going to have an overseas experience, they’re going to do it before they become mothers,” she said, adding that her informants “really felt plagued by the age of 30. They have a very long to-do list.”

On safety matters, “if females wanted to go abroad, they [felt they] needed to do it in a sanctioned manner,” said McKinney.

“I directed programs in Africa for about 10 years, semester programs. I would say that it was 90 percent women and 10 percent men each semester,” said Charlotte Blessing, now the director of international programs at Colorado College. “We were theorizing that parents are more comfortable sending young college girl students to a program in Africa where there is a structure set up… it’s not independent travel. Whereas they’re more likely to say to a young guy you can travel on your own."

"The further from the sort of comfort-zone area [outside Western Europe, for instance]... the more likely that females will be in that program,” said Michael Vande Berg, vice president for academic affairs at the Council on International Educational Exchange. In a research project that spanned 61 study abroad programs and about 1,300 students, Vande Berg has found differing outcomes among the men and women who do choose to study abroad. For instance, on a test of intercultural development, females on average start higher, with a score of 97.19 on a pre-test. They finish at 100.94. By contrast, and of concern, males actually lose ground from pre-test to post-test, their average scores dropping from 94.31 to 93.81.

“Sort of the nicest thing you can say about the males is that difference, going mathematically from the first test to the second test, is not significantly different. That is, the good thing you can say about males is they’re not learning anything interculturally,” said Vande Berg, who has argued the need for targeted mentoring and intervention to improve students’ learning outcomes abroad.

Tying his findings on gendered outcomes to the participation trends, Vande Berg asked, “What is it that students expect study abroad to be? Is it the case that male students are expecting study abroad to be a different experience than female students? And if so, are those expectations getting in the way of learning where the male students are concerned?”


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