Female students outnumber males

Mary Stegmeir

Katherine Miller, a chemistry junior, knows what it is like to be one of only a handful of females in class.

But attending courses such as her physics lecture, where she says approximately 75 percent of the students are men, does not trouble her.

“It hasn’t really bothered me. I do well and I like it,” she said.

Miller’s experience does not reflect University enrollment statistics – female students outnumber male students at the University by approximately 2,500, and their presence has changed course offerings and classroom dynamics.

Last spring, approximately 53 percent of University students – 24,448 of 46,416 – were women. Enrollment data for this semester will not be completed until after the second week of classes.

In fall 1986, 46 percent of University students – 20,720 of 45,006 – were females.

In that same time period, the number of female students in graduate school increased by 59 percent, while their male counterparts saw an 18 percent increase, department reports show.

Due to a change in methodology, the 2003 statistics include students in the College of Continuing Education, while the 1986 data does not. But the shift in female attendance is evident regardless of the change, University officials said.

Nationally, women have been pursuing higher education in greater numbers since the 1980s.

The U.S. Department of Education statistics show the number of women in post-secondary education institutions increased by 13 percent from 1989-1999, while the number of male learners increased by 5 percent.

Mary Vavrus, a University communications professor who has studied gender issues, said the increase of female students might continue for anywhere from a few years to a few decades.

She said college enrollment majorities will probably switch between men and women in the years to come.

A lagging economy that makes it difficult to achieve job security without an academic degree might soon lead to increases in the number of male students, she said.

Regardless of whether women will continue to outnumber men on U.S. college campuses, Vavrus said, access to higher education gives females more power.

“It’s a necessary and important part of demanding better treatment,” she said.

The increase of female students has led to expanded University course offerings tackling gender issues, she added.

“More classes about gender in all kinds of disciplines have been added,” Vavrus said. “They are not just limited to women’s studies. They are all over.”

But a greater female presence on campus does not translate into dominance in classroom discussions, she said.

“In my experience there is a big difference between female learners and male learners,” Vavrus said.

“Male students tend to initiate discussion and tend to be more confident about raising issues in class. Female students seem to express ideas apologetically at times,” she said.

Vavrus chalks these differences up to the socialization process, not to any biological difference between the sexes.

She said with more women filling college classrooms, instructors should include all students in class discussions, even those hesitant to share their ideas.

Vavrus also said women are still a minority in some areas of the University.

Although more women are receiving advanced degrees than men, there are still more male professors than female professors, and men in the University system tend to hold higher positions.

“There are very few women at the top,” she said. “There’s a lot of women at the assistant and adjunct professor level, but there are much fewer at the full or associate professor level.”

Females are also still underrepresented in math and the sciences, Vavrus said.

“Gender stereotypes about what men and women are good at are hard to dispel,” she said.

“Stereotypes are holding on … (T)hey seem to discourage girls in high school from studying math and science and women in college from doing it.”

Jim Johnson, MacArthur Program coordinator, said his fellowship program for graduate students interested in the developing world has experienced an increase in female students since the mid-1990s.

Fourteen of this year’s 17 MacArthur scholars are women.

“It seems like some of the best candidates we’re getting are women,” he said. “We’re just glad to have an increasing number of them at the University.”

Johnson said females fill an important role in academia.

Aside from the contributions women scholars make to their own disciplines, women tend to bring a different perspective to academic discussions and are more likely to examine gender issues in their areas of study. Looking at the role of the sexes in society can shed new light on established ways of thinking, he said.

“It’s really great to have people bring that particular set of data to the floor … . I think it’s one of the positive things that women bring,” Johnson said.