New Study Shows Impact of Gender Norms on Major Selection

While the numbers of women enrolling in universities continues to grow, and we are increasingly visible in previously male-centric fields such as STEM, higher education is still a hotbed of gender issues – biases, inequities, issues of representation and perception. One such issue is also a larger societal one: many academic fields are still segregated along gender lines.

A paper by Oklahoma-based sociologists Ann Beutel, Stephanie W. Burge, and B. Ann Borden published recently in the journal Gender Studies examines the way gender norms and stereotypes influence the majors that college women choose to pursue. The paper, entitled “Cultural perspectives on college major choice posit that the gender norms, stereotypes and beliefs individuals internalize contribute to persistent gender segregation in college majors,” sampled a group of just over a thousand female undergraduates at a four-year public university.

Nick Roll, describing the study (not available online) for Inside Higher Ed, writes,

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.

The researchers measured how much their subject conformed to certain gender norms, from modesty to domesticity to thinness, and discovered that “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,” Roll writes.

It’s a fascinating study that has implications for not just female students, but parents, faculty, and staff, particularly those working in advising roles. As a former academic advisor and current instructor for freshman undergraduates, I know it makes me reevaluate my own responsibilities in how I coach students through their major and career options.

Read Roll’s full interpretation of the study for Inside Higher Ed.