GENDER GAP: More female students than males attending universities

Students gather outside the Memorial Union building on the first day of classes last fall.
Students gather outside the Memorial Union building on the first day of classes last fall.

At first glance, the students surging through the Memorial Union on any given day look much like students always have — except there are a lot more of them than there used to be. But a sea change in enrollment reveals itself if you pay closer attention to the gender of the students passing by — female, female, male, male, female.

UC Davis, like many colleges and universities across the United States and in other parts of the industrialized world, no longer looks like your father’s campus. But it very well may be your daughter’s.

In the span of a single generation, undergraduate enrollment has switched from predominantly male to predominantly female. UC Davis’ 24,010 undergraduates are about 55 percent women to 45 percent men, just under the 56–44 national average. The U.S. Department of Education expects that gap to widen over the next five years to 57 percent female. UC Davis appears to be on track to meet that projection, with a freshman class split 57–43.

That trend holds wide-ranging implications for the country — for the future of its workforce and economy as well as for marriages and families — and has many education leaders, sociologists and others asking the question: Where are the men?

“I think we should worry about it,” said Pamela Burnett, director of undergraduate admissions. “We’re in the business of education and how education can help us become better citizens, utilizing our democracy to create the best society we can. We need to have representation, full representation, across the board from all corners.”

The gender gap is even wider among students from low-income families and among underrepresented minorities — more than 60 percent of African American and Hispanic students at UC Davis are female.

One of the biggest splits occurs in families with a father who has little education or is absent — with sons much less likely than their sisters to go to college, said Claudia Buchmann, an Ohio State University sociologist who spoke at UC Davis in November. The reasons are unclear, though young men from those families may face more pressure to get a job immediately after high school, place a lower priority on education or fail to recognize the potential of a degree to raise their earning power.

Girls get better grades

Women’s success in college hasn’t come at the expense of men’s, said Buchmann, who is co-authoring a book on the gender divide in higher education. The number of men enrolling in college has risen, but at a slower pace than the number of women.

Girls have long gotten better grades in school than boys, but in the 1960s and ’70s many either did not go to college or dropped out to get married, she said. But with declining discrimination and a rising divorce rate, women have outpaced men in college graduation rates since 1982. In 2004, women received 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States, compared with 35 percent in 1960.

“The generation of women who were born in the 1960s was the first to see their mothers getting divorced and having few options in the labor market,” Buchmann said. “Many of these women were likely thinking they wanted to avoid that situation by getting a college degree.”

For most of UC Davis’ 100-year history, male students have held the majority. All 28 students who enrolled in classes when the University Farm School opened in January 1908 were men. The first women arrived from UC Berkeley in 1914.

It was in 1979 that women overtook men in undergraduate enrollment. Women held a slim majority until the mid-1990s, when their numbers began to rise faster than men’s. Throughout the past decade, the ratio has hovered near 55–45 percent. Women still trail men slightly among the more than 4,000 graduate students, but hold majorities in many of the professional schools such as law, medicine and veterinary medicine.

Not only are women enrolling in greater numbers, they also perform better overall in college. They earn better grades, graduate in higher numbers, earn more honors and are less likely to be on academic probation.

The gender shift is more evident in some majors than others, prompting discussions among faculty members about the reasons for the declining percentages of male students in their classrooms.

‘Turned off by high school’

Lynn Kimsey ’75, Ph.D. ’79, interim chair of the entomology department, believes that the imbalance begins in K–12 schools. “Schools are hard pressed to keep achievement high, so they focus on the kids who are easiest to get this from — girls,” Kimsey said. “The boys are higher energy and harder to focus. . . . The lack of PE and other high-energy activities makes it tough for boys. I saw this in my own son and the way that teachers focused on the girls, even to how assignments were given.

“Many men out of high school head straight for construction, high-tech and military jobs. They are so turned off by high school that they don’t even think about continuing in school. The money, at least, was good in these fields.”

The result, Kimsey said, is a society of women who are increasingly highly educated and white collar and men who are less educated and blue collar.

Many men who do go to college seem less prepared than their female classmates for the rigors of their coursework, say some UC Davis academic advisers and students. Men tend to procrastinate more in their studies while many women seem driven to excel.

“Women usually know what they want to do and how to do it earlier in life,” said Zoe Chau, a third-year design student from Elk Grove.

Chris Civil, a third-year student from Yucaipa double-majoring in political science and English, said he came to UC Davis knowing what he wanted to do: become a lawyer. But, he said, “Sometimes [women] are more dedicated to their studies. I think men are more active sometimes in other things. Studies are more passive, and men are into physical things, like sports and doing things with their hands.”

Aggie football coach Bob Biggs ’73 said male students do spend more time playing video games. “This is a generation of kids who have been raised on computers. Their favorite pastime is playing these video games. Maybe that’s taking away from time they use for studying and preparing for exams.”

Biggs said most of his athletes are good students who have their sights set on earning a college degree. But he said compared with students in past years, they are less optimistic about their opportunities after graduating. “There’s a real sense of concern among a lot of these kids about whether, at the end of it, they’re going to be able to lead productive lives and raise their own families.”

Biggs said those uncertainties, on top of rising college costs, might be leading many young men to find a job after high school instead. And the longer they are out of school, the less likely they are to go to college.

Still, traditional divisions of the sexes continue to exist in some majors, with civil engineering, for example, 75 percent male and human development 92 percent female. But many other majors have undergone dramatic shifts. An animal science major once dominated by men is now 83 percent women. Women hold slight majorities in chemistry, as well as the biochemistry and molecular biology major, and represent 61 percent of one of UC Davis’ most popular majors, biological sciences.

Engineering lags

Similarly, among professional schools, enrollment in the M.B.A. program is two-thirds male and in education programs, long dominated by women, 73 percent female. But women have overtaken men in the medical school (57 percent), law school (55 percent) and veterinary school (80 percent).

As a result, the gender ratio in professions is changing as well. In 2007, women accounted for nearly 47 percent of the 58,240 veterinarians in private practice in the U.S., according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association. Among the 38,974 veterinarians who treat only pets, women now outnumber men at 53 percent.

However, women still lag in some careers long dominated by men, especially engineering, while teaching remains a predominately female occupation.

And while their numbers have grown among faculty ranks, women remain a minority in academia in the sciences.

“The percentages I’m seeing are more like 60:40 female to male in the undergraduate pools,” said Kimsey, the entomology chair. “In graduate pools in science it’s a little closer to 50:50, but then when you go to recruitment for faculty positions it often drops to 10:90 female to male.”

Nevertheless, Kimberlee Shauman, an associate professor of sociology, said that women are increasingly putting their undergraduate degrees to work, though to varying degrees depending on the field.

Shauman has been analyzing choices of undergraduate majors and occupations of women and men nationwide who earned their degrees in 1985–93 and comparing with data for female and male college graduates from 1995–2003.

Increasingly, women who majored in biological sciences go to work in life sciences occupations, Shauman found. And women who studied business, management or law are now as likely as men to use their degrees in their careers.

However, she found that fields that are dominated by one sex saw the least cross over — men who earned teaching credentials were more likely to do something besides teach, while women were less likely to use degrees in engineering, computer science, math and economics in their work.

Career choice differences

Society is losing its investment in the education of those graduates, Shauman said. “Shouldn’t we be worried that men aren’t going into education? Don’t we want education to be one of the fields that has the most competent people?”

At the same time, she said, science and engineering are losing the talent of women who leave their careers to have children and find it difficult to bounce back.

In surveys, men and women also tend to list different motivations in their job choices, with men giving high priority to pay and prestige and women saying they most want to help people or improve the world, Shauman said. Women also often choose careers that have an option to work part time, even if they work full time themselves.

Differences have been shrinking between boys’ and girls’ results on standardized tests for math and science. But those scores fail to predict what fields of study and careers students will pursue.

“There are other things that are driving those choices of majors,” Shauman said. “People chose their majors according to what they’re good at, and they also need to feel and believe that they’re good at it. They need to have people in their lives, parents or teachers or whatever, saying, yeah, you’re good at it.”

Kathleen Holder is interim editor of UC Davis Magazine, where this story appeared in the winter 2009 issue.

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