Major gender discrepancies?
By Erin Loback, News Editor
Published on Wednesday, April 30, 1997
Ian Campbell '99 noticed something odd about one of his classes Fall term.
He was one of about 15 men in a women's studies class of 120 students. The men all sat together. "The first day I went in early and sat down, and guys I didn't even know came in and sat down next to me," he said. "We looked at each other and didn't even say anything. There was an unspoken connection."
Michelle Cavallaro '99 was the only female working with five men on a term-long project for Computer Science 23 last spring. "I remember feeling at the beginning that they thought I was stupid in computer science," she said. Fall term, Cavallaro was one of two females in a computer science class of 30.
If the staggeringly unbalanced composition of some classes at Dartmouth is surprising, the gender ratios in some academic departments are even more askew: Dartmouth has never graduated a women's studies major, and 90 percent of computer science majors are men.
Gender disparities exist in almost every major. Male physics and philosophy majors outnumber females by three to one, and males predominate in chemistry, engineering, government and economics. Females comprise the majority in foreign languages, biology, anthropology and environmental studies. Female psychology majors comprise at least 70 percent of the College's total.
It is easy to prove there is a difference in the majors men and women choose. What is not easy is explaining why this difference exists.
Men fill majors of money, power
Until Marie Curie joined her husband in the discovery of radium in 1898, science was the dominion of men. Sixty-three years after her death, men still outnumber women in the hard sciences.
In Curie's own discipline, physics, women comprise only 25 percent of majors at Dartmouth.
Over the years, scholars have sought to identify environmental factors that sway women away from the sciences. They have stated that science emphasizes characteristics society has deemed masculine: science is aggressive, competitive and leaves little room for emotions.
Men also outnumber women in disciplines viewed as pre-corporate, like economics, government and engineering. Almost 60 percent of Dartmouth government majors and about two-thirds of economics and engineering majors are male.
Director of the Women In Science Project Mary Pavone said she thinks many men choose majors with money in mind. "They go into government and economics and engineering to do banking and consulting and make money," she said.
Computing: Where are the women?
The most dramatically male major at Dartmouth is computer science: there are currently 83 male majors and only 12 females.
But according to Pavone, computer science was not always so skewed.
"Back in the mid-1980s when computer science was really first established as a major, women were not equal to men, but they were one-third, one-fourth, one year almost a half" of all computer science majors at the College, she said.
When the computer science discipline was first recognized as a separate field from math, it seemed welcoming to both men and women. "Computers have no gender," Pavone said.
But when computers worked their way into elementary schools and video games became widespread, computers became gender-stereotyped as games were regarded as violent and male-oriented. Seeing male domination in computers at an early age, girls were discouraged.
Pavone said women's representation in computer science at Dartmouth dropped drastically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, down to only two to six women per year. Now many men have more hands-on programming experience upon entering college than women, and they already have a perceived advantage, she said.
Cavallaro, who is a computer science major, said the males in her classes have had more programming experience before college. But she said she is not sure whether this is because men are encouraged more in high school or because there are more men in her classes.
Cavallaro said she was one of two women in a computer science class of 30 students Fall term.
In classes where men far outnumbered women, Cavallaro said she felt "intimidated, but not in terms of anything the department has done. It is just intimidating to be in a class that you are one of the few people you can relate to."
Cavallaro, along with three other computer science majors -- Ann De Bord '99, Marisa Kolodny '99 and April Rasala '99 -- will be doing an independent study of computer gaming theory with Computer Science Professor Fillia Makedon this summer.
"We're all really psyched on it," Cavallaro said. "It is a group of women and a it will be positive experience."
Mind over subject matter?
Although it is impossible to separate environment from genetics in determining the root of behavior or ability, scientists believe biology plays a role in determining aptitude and interest.
Scientists have developed new techniques that allow them to view activity in a functioning brain. In a functional MRI scan, areas of high activity "light up" on a monitor, due to extra blood flow to cells that are working harder.
Scientists can observe the brain of a subject working math problems or listening to music. This has enabled researchers to draw some conclusions about gender differences in brain biology.
On average, men and women score differently on standardized tests, like the SAT. SAT scores are a predictor of future academic performance, which is related to major preference.
A study performed in the 1980s by Camilla Benbow found that, on average, boys scored 30 to 35 points higher than girls on the math section of the SAT. The ratio of boys to girls scoring higher than 700 on the math section was 13 to one. Scores on the verbal section were approximately the same for men and women.
There is considerable debate over whether the differences in test scores reflect physiological differences, Psychology Professor Cathy Cramer said, but "there is no support for boy brains having a bigger math area."
But Benbow's research led her to believe the differences have a biological basis. The two hemispheres of female brains often have the same functions, while the halves of a male brains tend to have different functions.
One result of this difference in lateralization is a male bias toward visual, spatial skills, which tend to be performed mostly by the right hemisphere of the brain.
"Certainly men are more represented in the sciences, and people have suggested that could be because of visual, spatial skills," Cramer said.
Elizabeth Fennema and Lindsay Tartre, who research women and mathematical performance, found that men on average do better in math, regardless of their aptitude for spatial skills. For women, however, spatial ability is highly correlated with mathematical performance.
Women in Science Project
At Dartmouth, women make up about 45 percent of majors in the sciences -- biology, chemistry, engineering, computer science and physics. But remove biology from the calculation, and females comprise only 32 percent of the total.
Ten years ago, an equal number of men and women majored in biology at Dartmouth. But now, women far exceed men in biology. There are currently 172 female biology majors and only 108 male majors.
"The notion is that women see a degree in biology as a way to help people," Pavone said, implying that women are more likely to consider feelings when choosing a major. But Pavone said more women should major in the other sciences.
"Engineers help people, too," she said.
Dartmouth's percentage of female engineering majors, about 37 percent, is higher than the national average of 18 percent.
Dartmouth has been trying to actively promote female participation in the sciences through the Women in Science Project.
Pavone said 1990 was a national low for women's participation in the mathematics and sciences, and Dartmouth created WISP to counteract the trend. She said by 1993 and 1994, when the women who were freshmen when the program began were graduating, there was a visible increase in female participation in chemistry, math and engineering. But Pavone said WISP is not the only reason for the change.
"There are other forces acting -- background, culture, parents -- all those things operating at the same time influence people," she said.
The WISP program focuses on freshmen women who have expressed an interest in science. WISP coordinators encourage women to retain their interest in science, since many women change their minds once in college, Pavone said.
"We want to help establish and support a climate that is social as well as academic," she said.
Although men are underrepresented in many of the humanities, the College has made no effort to create a "Men in Humanities Project." Director of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Mary Childers said men should be encouraged to study humanities, but it is more important to encourage women to study sciences.
She said in the past, women have been "actively discriminated against, and the past still has a chilling effect on participation today."