Role Models and Stereotypes

Study both backs up and challenges conventional wisdom about whether presence of female faculty members influences female students' choice of major.
January 4, 2010

Eliminating gender stereotypes in society may be a more powerful tool to attracting women to male-dominated academic majors than is recruiting more female faculty members, according to a study that will be discussed today in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association.

But assuming that gender stereotypes persist, the presence of female faculty members may have the greatest impact in fields where there are very few women, the study found.

The study goes beyond analysis in which female students are interviewed about why they select (or don't select) particular measures. Instead, it uses data from the Computer Aided Science Policy Analysis and Research database, encompassing some 1,500 colleges with about 1 million students enrolled a year, and examines student and faculty patterns from 1976 through 1987. Colleges were analyzed by comparing the percentage of female students in various departments to the ratio across departments at the institutions involved, and then checked for correlations with the presence of relative numbers of female faculty members.

During this period -- which predated many of the current efforts by colleges to attract women to science departments -- the study found only one area where there was a correlation between increased representation of women on the faculty and increased likelihood of women majoring in a field: engineering. Notably, the study found that engineering during this period had particularly low levels of female enrollment and representation on faculties.

The study then did an additional level of analysis, matching the results against data showing the degree to which gender stereotypes were present among the populations in various states, using national surveys on stereotypes that indicated significant differences in the extent to which gender stereotypes were accepted. When controlling for the variation in these levels of stereotype acceptance, the study found no correlation between relatively greater numbers of female faculty members and female students' choices of major. And with or without controlling for the presence of gender stereotypes in the state, the analysis found no relationship between the presence of male faculty members and the chances that male students would major in a female-dominated field.

The study was conducted by Yi Qian, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, and Basit Zafar, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

In their paper, they note that while the gender makeup of majors and faculties has changed since the period studied, significant gaps remain. For instance, they cite data showing that in 1999-2000, among recipients of bachelor's degrees, 13 percent of women majored in education, compared to 4 percent of men. In the same year, 2 percent of women majored in engineering, compared to 12 percent of men.

Other research has correlated gender-related trends in major selection with earning gaps later in life. At August's meeting of the American Sociological Association, researchers presented data showing that while the earnings gap between men and women was reduced between 1972 and 1992, the share of that gap attributed to differing choices of majors increased.

The paper presented Monday concludes by saying that the study findings support the idea that female faculty members may be serving as role models in attracting women to fields where there are few women visible. But given the findings about overall gender stereotype attitudes, the paper says that "a more useful policy [to attract female students] would be to take measures to change social attitudes and remove stereotypes, such as females not being as good as males in math."


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