Mars, Venus & majors: What drives college major selection

Gender and college major selection

Women become nurses and teachers. Men become doctors and police officers. These old-fashioned notions went out the window decades ago, didn't they? Maybe not entirely.

On Forbes.com's 2010 top 10 college majors for men and women, the business major was #1 for both sexes. Some of the other top majors for both genders--although not in the same order--include social sciences and history, education, psychology, and visual and performing arts.

So where do the lists diverge? Along some fairly predictable lines, some might say. "Female majors" include health professions/clinical services, English language/ literature, and liberal arts/humanities. "Male majors," on the other hand, include engineering, computer and information sciences, and security and protective services.

Theories about how gender can affect career choices abound. Is it just a case of pink versus blue--the belief that we're hardwired to play certain roles based on our gender? Or is it determined by how we're brought up--for instance, given toys to play with and clothes to wear that confirm gender stereotypes from the earliest age?

Multiple opinions about gender differences

In "The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain," Simon Baron-Cohen writes that biological differences in the brain separate men (primarily systemizers) from women (primarily empathizers). In his book "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus," John Gray posits that the differences between the sexes are rooted in different communication styles. In her book "You Just Don't Understand," Deborah Tannen offers a similar theory.

A 2010 report, entitled "Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics" explains that, "Well-documented gender differences exist in the value that women and men place on doing work that contributes to society, with women more likely than men to prefer work with a clear social purpose."

Additionally, the report explains that the majority of both women and men of all racial-ethnic groups hold a strong implicit association of females and liberal arts while males are associated with science.

Starting out equal

Even though studies show that through middle school, girls are on a par with boys in terms of interest in and ability to perform in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, "societal pressures often push young women away from careers in technology and computers," says Shyno Chacko Pandeya, Outreach Project Director of Dot Diva, an organization that seeks to create an exciting and positive image of computing for high school girls.

Media stereotypes of antisocial computer geeks and teachers, counselors, and professors who discourage girls from STEM majors undermine their self confidence, Pandeya explains. Kamala Appel, author and ex-school teacher, college professor and college recruiter, agrees. "Young women often undervalue their own contributions in both personal and work relationships, which can often lead to a lack of self confidence." As self confidence decreases, so does interest, it seems.

Few recent studies have been conducted concerning men in underrepresented college majors and careers--nursing, elementary school teaching, library science and social work. However, in "The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the 'Female' Professions," Christine Williams determined that men in female-dominated careers actually benefited in the workplace. They did, however, encounter "prejudice from clients and others outside their profession."

The answer: Simplistic or complicated?

Communication styles, biological differences or gender socialization? Which factors actually influence the choice of college majors and, ultimately, careers?

Margaret J. King, Ph.D., director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, believes that women tend to gravitate toward relational work, men toward spatial. "The three differences between Forbes' college majors lists--women in health, liberal arts and English; men in engineering, security and computers--reflect this."

The female majors tend to be language-based, while male preferences are math-based. "These differences are brain-based before they are culture and socially biased. The cultural tendencies and reinforcements always follow the built-in, hardwired biological imperatives, or they can't be sustained," says Dr. King.

Gender differences: The final analysis

With so many different opinions and studies, there's no definitive statement on why gender stereotypes still persist in educational and career selection. Because gender diversity can bring a different perspective and creative innovation to majors and careers dominated by one gender, perhaps the key will be in packaging and promoting them differently. A culture of encouragement rather than discouragement is likely to help those seeking majors and careers outside our societal "comfort level" to pursue their dreams, experts say.