How Women Select Majors

Study finds adherence to gender norms around femininity is linked to gender disparities in selection of programs of study.

August 18, 2017
 
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Women and men are, in theory, free to choose their college majors without any interference. So why do majors -- and in turn, certain jobs and roles in society -- remain segregated?

Many women in STEM fields, for example, have cited discrimination and discriminatory attitudes as hardships they face in academia and in the private sector, and a new paper adds another factor to the mix: feminine norms, and how women perceive and adhere to femininity.

“Cultural perspectives on college major choice posit that the gender norms, stereotypes and beliefs individuals internalize contribute to persistent gender segregation in college majors,” the paper, authored by Oklahoma sociologists Ann Beutel, Stephanie W. Burge, and B. Ann Borden and published in the journal Gender Studies, reads. “Yet relatively little attention has been paid to how young women’s adherence to feminine norms may be associated with college major choice.”

The researchers found that conformity to feminine norms was associated negatively with a woman’s odds of choosing STEM and common pre-med majors, as well as arts and humanities majors. Conformity had a positive relationship with a woman’s odds of choosing majors in the social sciences, education and social services.

And while the study sampled 1,100 women enrolled at an unnamed four-year public university in the south-central U.S., its implications go far beyond just the male-to-female ratio of a classroom, department or college.

“In sum, although women’s participation in higher education has increased, persistent gender stratification in college majors contributes to gender stratification in the contemporary labor market, with women generally faring worse than men in terms of employment and earnings,” the paper reads.

The paper argues that because culture, media and literature emphasize women’s role in caregiving, for example, they also affect women’s preferences.

“Through socialization processes, children and adolescents learn and internalize these gender norms, stereotypes and beliefs, and in turn develop their own gendered preferences,” the paper reads. Additionally, women’s gendered expectations about their futures -- having roles as a wife and a mother -- might influence them to choose majors that would lead to occupations that would be more compatible for caring for a family.

That being said, the paper argues, it would follow that how women perceive their femininity can change how they view what major they should choose. The researchers measured how much their sample group adhered to norms associated with women’s role in U.S. society, among eight subsections:

  • Being nice in relationships
  • Caring for children
  • Thinness
  • Sexual fidelity
  • Modesty
  • Romantic relationships
  • Domesticity
  • Investing in appearances

Factors such as respondents’ race and ethnicity, year in college, as well as their parents’ education, were controlled.

The more that women perceived themselves as adhering to feminine norms, the more likely they were to avoid majors such as STEM or common pre-med majors. However, there were also variations in which subsections were associated with which majors.

For example, while one of the feminine norms was niceness in relationships, higher scores for adhering to that norm were associated with higher odds of choosing a major from the arts and humanities -- a section of majors that women who adhere to the norms had less odds of choosing overall.

“We found that, with background factors controlled, general (overall) conformity to feminine norms, as measured by the total [Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory] scale score, was associated negatively with women’s odds of choosing STEM and doctoral-track medicine majors, as well as arts and humanities majors, relative to choosing majors in social sciences, education and social services,” the paper reads. “Total CFNI scale scores had no significant associations with choosing a major from clinical and health sciences, business, and communication and journalism relative to choosing a major from social sciences, education and social services.”

The authors note that the study does face some limitations -- namely, that the data can only point to associations, not causations. Additionally, the authors posit what data could be gleaned from measuring women’s conformity to masculine norms, using the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory as a complement to the CFNI.

“Yet, as the results of our study suggest for feminine norms, associations between specific masculine norms and majoring in a specific field of study could be complex … Clearly, our understanding of the role of gender norms in the lives of contemporary young women and young men would be enhanced if we could examine how specific feminine and masculine norms are associated with their choice of college major.”

Despite these limitations, however, the paper could be a jumping-off point for further study of gender disparities among majors and in employment.

“Though young women have made tremendous strides in their overall level of educational attainment, gender segregation of college majors has persisted,” the paper concludes. “Our results suggest that at least some of the barriers to increased gender integration of academic fields of study may come from cultural norms about gender, and in particular femininity, which have been durable in spite of increases in gender egalitarian ideology and women’s educational attainment and labor force participation.”

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