Gender gaps go beyond STEM majors

A group of UConn students gather at a table on campus. UConn found that gender gaps exist beyond STEM majors. (Ruohan Li/The Daily Campus)

While the University of Connecticut improved the number of women graduating from the school of engineering in 2015, major gender divides are not exclusive to STEM fields.

At UConn, the top ten majors for men are economics, mechanical engineering, finance, biology, computer science and engineering, biomedical engineering, accounting, communication, psychology and political science.

For women the top ten majors are psychology, biology, allied health, nursing, communications, physiology and neurobiology, human development, family studies, animal science, economics and speech language and hearing sciences

The effort to motivate and retain women in the field of engineering puts UConn at the top of the nation with an increase of 9.3 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to the UConn Today article.

Yet, within engineering and other majors, there are fields that are dominated by men and others that are dominated by women. Data from the Office of Institutional Research and effectiveness shows there is a large gender gap.

For example, in mechanical engineering only 13.5 percent of the students this year are women. Women make up only 26.3 percent of economics majors and 29.3 percent of finance majors.

Meghan Vanwie is a sixth-semester material science major and said the gender gap can be felt in some fields of engineering more than others.

“Majors like biomedical engineering are fill with a bunch of girls,” Vanwie said. “But one of my friends is a civil engineering major and she said she is lucky to have one or two girls in her classes of 20 people.”

The gender gap does not only affect women in male dominated fields. There are some majors in which women are the majority.

Psychology (73.5 percent female), allied health (77.3 percent), physiology and neurobiology (65 percent) and nursing (85 percent) are all dominated by women.

Robby Waters is a first-semester nursing major. He said he chose nursing because it was a perfect transition from his past work as an EMT into the medical field.

Waters said he knows people usually picture nurses as women.

“I didn’t care that much, for me it has always been about the patients and getting involved in the medical field. I didn’t care if it had to be through nursing,” Waters said.

There are challenges when you are the underrepresented gender in a classroom. Vanwie said she sometimes feels her skills in math and science are doubted because of her gender.

“I wasn’t concerned about being a woman in a male dominated field. But sometimes you can feel the imbalance when there is a project and there are the cliché roles for women of drawing and writing. The guys will turn to the girls and say ‘You can do this and we (the men) will do more of the math and science based part,’” Vanwie said. 

Waters said for him, it was never an issue because he had always been able to get along with girls, but added that this might not always be the case for men in nursing.

“I always notice this one kid in my class who always sits alone while everyone else in groups, and I feel bad that he always has to sit alone,” Waters said.

Waters said children develop stereotypes about gender and professions at a young age, which can make them harder to overcome.

Waters said little kids are always taught that a nurse will be a woman. When they see a male nurse, they might be confused.

Vanwie said it’s important to change the stereotype that men become engineers and  women become teachers and nurses. When this happens, she said, people will think less of gender in their classes and be more comfortable.

Vanwie is part of the Multiply Your Option Program (MYO), a group of women engineers who speak to eighth grade girls and encourage them to go into STEM fields when they get to college.

In the past when she has done it, the students have been asked what they are considering doing in the future and many of them answer with teaching, design and history. MYO tries to show them what they can do with a STEM major.

Vanwie said there are ways to help women feel more comfortable in their majors. She said that if there are other women in the class sticking together is important. Faculty support and influence from the industry can also be very beneficial for both men and women.

“Men and women think differently and when they are working together; they can bounce ideas from each other and come up with a better solution than if it was only a group of men and a women group separately,” Vanwie said.

Daniela Marulanda is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at