Op-Ed plus: Gender composition of college majors

I have an Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times, part of the Great Divide series. It’s online now, titled “How Can We Jump-Start the Struggle for Gender Equality?” (My title was, “One Step Back: What Happened to the Gender Revolution?”)


The Times made one very nice graphic from the trends I provided:


But the one below was left on the cutting-room floor. The text to set it up is:

So why did progress stall in the 1990s? First, despite the removal of many legal and social injustices, the movement away from traditional forms of gender segregation has remained decidedly unidirectional. As the sociologist Paula England has shown, this is most apparent in education. If you look at female representation in the top fields of study since 1970, the pattern is clear. The most female-dominated majors remained that way; the male-dominated majors had continued increases in female representation through the early 2000s; and some heavily male-dominated ones saw dramatic spikes in women’s share of degrees (which have now slowed or stalled). Strikingly absent is the substantial movement of men into even one female-dominated major.

I grouped the majors — blue, green, red — according to their composition in 1971 and tracked them to 2011. Two points: First, the red ones all stayed female dominated. Second, the integration of the blue and green ones mostly slowed or stalled sometime in the 1980s or 1990s (click to enlarge):


10 thoughts on “Op-Ed plus: Gender composition of college majors

  1. That looks like most fields are close to parity (+/- 10% or so) or tipped female, save for CompSci and Engineering. The CompSci and Engineering curves are stark, but the rest of the blue group, not so much. Now, recalling in that a larger proportion of undergraduates are female to begin with is important (and, if not included in the calculations, makes the bar for parity higher: IIRC it is around 56/44%, tipped female in 2013), and that might mean that what appears to be something close to parity in that chart is not parity at all.

    Also, I’m still curious what the confidence intervals for the lines closest to 50 are. I’m having trouble discerning the shades of the middle blues and greens, so I’m drawing a blank on the the field-specific story. What is a useful cutpoint for when a profession or field is “feminized” or male dominated? Not sure if communications or visual/performing arts is the closest steady line to parity (depending on total degrees awarded ratios), but in either case, what is it about that particular field that explains why it is an oddball?


  2. If by gender equality you mean 50% representation of women in all professions then that sounds like a dubious goal. Men and women are good at different things*, so its not a problem if some professions have a 20 – 80 spilt.

    On average of course, there are outliers in everything.


  3. Even if man and woman are equally good, they are not equally willing to do some jobs. My daughter is excellent at math. I tried for years to encourage her to pick more math and physics – and she finally ended in a class of theatrical-journalist profile, despite my loud protests. That class is 100% female.

    In fact, I have an impression that’s it’s more that boys are not interested in some topics and heavily interested in some others, while girls seems to be less fixated. This seems to be somehow confirmed by the studies on human toddler’s and primates’ children on toy preference: both male primate babies and human male babies have clear preferences on certain kind of toys, while preferences for female babies both in primates and humans seems to be not as strong.

    Forcing 50/50 gender ratio may in fact constitute a clear case of sexism, since if they will be 100 boys and 50 girls willing to go to some school competing for 100 places, all girls will get in, while only half boys will get in, despite having the same qualifications. That’s an unfair discrimination, I think.


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