Thrive on Campus//

Here’s How To Seek Out Support in a Gender-Imbalanced Major

Transitioning to college can be an intimidating experience — especially when you pursue a program where you struggle to identify with your peers.

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

On many college campuses, the gender divide pictured in admissions brochures is not the divide you’ll come across once you’ve arrived at school. If your college experience is anything like mine, you might attend a university with a relatively even split overall, but find yourself in classes that are drastically imbalanced. As a journalism student in the college of arts and sciences at my university, which consists of over 60 percent women, I am always surprised when there are more than one or two men in my classes.

Female friends of mine who study engineering at my school face the opposite problem — they are greatly outnumbered by male counterparts and only make up about 30 percent of engineers on campus, whereas men comprise roughly 70 percent. This is not a new phenomenon. A 2010 study found similarly small numbers of women in STEM fields, largely due to stereotypes and gender bias, and the climate of STEM departments at universities. This gender gap extends to faculty members, too. A 2018 study in the Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research states that female faculty members in higher education only represent about one in five faculty members in computer science, math, engineering, and physical sciences.

There’s some evidence that this kind of gendered view of education starts when we are young. The National Girls Collaborative Project explains that girls and boys “do not significantly differ in their abilities in mathematics and science, but do differ in their interest and confidence” in STEM subjects. Still, young girls do not have the same STEM representation or advocacy in the grade-school classrooms, which then follows them to their college campuses and careers. And yet women around the world — whether they are students, professors, or professionals — still push themselves to follow their STEM aspirations. By seeking guidance and becoming a part of something larger than yourself, you, too, can feel less alone in an imbalanced major or program.

Find a mentor

Whether you are the only woman in a computer science class, one of few men in an art history course, or identify as non-binary on a largely binary campus, finding a mentor who can relate to your experiences and sense of self can help you feel more supported and successful. A year-long study published by the National Academy of Sciences examined the effects of peer mentoring on women engineering students during their transition to college. The study found that the women students who had women as mentors, rather than men, felt a stronger sense of belonging in engineering as well as self-efficacy, motivation, retention in the major, and career aspirations in engineering. Moreover, the researchers found that women without mentors thought about switching majors more frequently. A mentor who once stood in your shoes can help you feel encouraged and inspired.

Seek empowerment

Becoming a part of a group with a collective goal can help you feel a deeper sense of purpose and belonging. Studies have shown that even having a simple relationship with a group of people — whether you are studying for an exam together or happen to live in the same dorm — can increase feelings of warmth and motivation. Seek out opportunities on campus that not only allow you to build relationships in a group setting, but also encourage you to celebrate your identity and academic aspirations. For example, organizations like the Society of Women Engineers and Girls Who Code encourage women to persevere despite the gender gap in engineering and technology. With thousands of local chapters, these organizations connect women engineers and computer scientists and provide educational programming to improve skills.

Speak up

If you feel as though you are receiving unfair treatment in your major or program on the basis of sex or gender, don’t be afraid to utilize resources at your university’s gender equity center or Title IX office. Every college and university, public and private, is required by law to implement a policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in its programs and activities. With the support of your friends or a faculty member you trust, seek out resources that will help you find equality in your college experience.

Although it might be intimidating to enroll in a major or program with a blatant gender imbalance, don’t let it stop you from pursuing your academic aspirations. With the support of dependable faculty members and a group of like-minded individuals, you can rise to the challenge and pursue your passion.

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis


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