Every semester on the first day of her introductory computer science course, professor Dianne Martin asks her students to take out a piece of paper and sketch their impression of a “computer scientist.”
The crude portraits range from quirky-looking mad scientist types to elderly men with beards, but one trait remains common: none of the pictures are of women. In a field dominated by men, a successful female is something hard for many to imagine, said Martin, who is also chair of the computer science department.
“Even though there are women in the class, none of them draw someone who looks like themselves,” Martin said. “As (computer science) kind of evolved, it took on kind of a male aura and there’s that stereotype of the geek, and most women just don’t see themselves as that geek.”
Computer science, where male majors outnumber females by more than four to one, is one of several departments where one sex far outnumbers the other. Figures from last semester show larger numbers of males in more technical fields, such as engineering and finance, while women have higher counts in liberal arts disciplines, such as English and psychology.
The most marked differences are in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where there were 332 males and just 141 females in fall 2004. A less significant male majority is found in the School of Business, where men outrank women 839 to 687.
Conversely, females claim majorities of 3,488 to 2,263 in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and 1,193 to 876 in the Elliott School of International Affairs. Such disparities, said some professors, may reflect deep-rooted cultural perceptions about male and female roles in society.
“I think it goes back to the child-development stages,” said Howard Davis, director of undergraduate service in SEAS. “I’ve talked to female students around here, and hardly any of them are encouraged at the junior high or elementary levels to go into math and sciences, so consequently that has an effect on them later.”
More telling differences are found in a number of individual majors. Within the Columbian College, women outnumber men roughly 2 to 1 and 3 to 1 in English and psychology, respectively, while men outnumber women 2 to 1 and 4 to 3 in history and political science.
Harvard University President Lawrence Summers was widely criticized for suggesting in a speech last month that biological differences between male and female brain structures might account for why fewer women pursue careers in technical science. He has since backed away from his statements, but his speech ignited a national debate playing out in academia and the media.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 26,431 women earned bachelor’s degrees in liberal or general studies in 2002 compared to 12,902 men. By contrast, 34,248 males earned degrees in computer and information sciences that year next to just 13,051 females.
Some students within the lopsided GW departments said that while a gender gap is noticeable, it does not bother them. NhatQuynh Duong, a female student in SEAS, said the issue no longer crosses her mind.
“It does feel a little weird at first, but I’m used to it by now,” said Duong, a senior. “When I walk into the classroom I do look for other girls, but if they’re not there, I don’t even think about it.”
Sophomore Tovah Pentelovitch, an English major, said gender sometimes matters in her English classes. She said class discussions are often dominated with female-oriented topics.
“Sometimes when we’re discussing things it tends to gravitate toward issues women are naturally more interested in,” Pentelovitch said.
Several department chairs said they were unaware of any gender gaps and expressed surprise at the results.
“We’ve never kept any of our own statistics on that,” said Muriel Atkin, chair of the history department, which has twice as many male majors. “We’ve just accepted anyone who was interested. I have no explanation for it.”
Though nearly all warned against the inaccuracies of gender stereotypes, several students said certain fields appeal more to one sex than the other.
“I think girls are attracted more to cerebral fields that have a lot more to do with discussion than studying facts and testing,” said senior Jon Lucks, an English major. “Things like poetry and literature these days just tend to attract more girls than guys.”
Some suggested that males more often tend to seek degrees with more practical applications, while women take a more freethinking approach to education.
“Maybe English isn’t as career-specific,” said junior Jonathon Kolker, also an English major, accounting for the gender gap in his own field of study.
Several professors in male- or female-dominated departments said they see it as a non-issue and have no reason try to correct the imbalance.
Other programs, such as those within SEAS, are taking a more aggressive approach. Though there are no formal programs in place to recruit more women, officials within the school said they make a special effort to make women feel more comfortable.
Although females make up just 30 percent of the undergraduate population in SEAS, Davis, the undergraduate services director, said that proportion is higher than many other engineering schools’.
Davis said the key to attracting more women is to make those already enrolled feel welcome.
“If we make this an environment that’s conducive to women, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Davis said. “If you have more women here, more women will be encouraged to come.”