Emma Johnson writes for Impact Features, asking the question: is there still sexism present within university degree subjects?

I live in a house of four girls and three boys. We fit rather neatly into gender stereotypes, not only in the realms of general cleanliness, but also in our choice of subjects. The girls do humanities while the boys do science and engineering, with only one exception. A lot of university courses have an equal gender split but certainly not all of them. Is this simply down to preference or is something amiss?

There is a theory that men and women are wired differently. Girls generally process information on the brain’s left, or creative side, whereas boys use their right, analytical side more. This has been used to explain why women dominate the arts and men the sciences. Inevitably, gender inequality is far more complicated that this; degrees based in science such as Psychology are heavily female while humanities such as Economics and Philosophy can favour men. Furthermore, results show that at GCSE and A level, many girls excel at the sciences and many boys enjoy the arts; the theory is far from completely true. So why is it that, in the midst of all these talented female scientists and male writers, the gender weightings for certain subjects are so skewed?

“There is a theory that men and women are wired differently”

The sciences, Maths and Engineering have traditionally been male dominated areas and still are today. At the University of Bristol, just 6% of Engineering professors are female. Bristol SU have also discovered that over half of female sciences students feel uncomfortable because of their gender. They reported lecturers making sexist jokes and one reported a lecturer expressing surprise that female students had out-performed males. This kind of issue is not exclusive to Bristol. According to a 2014 Times Higher Education article, a girl at the University of Cambridge was told by an elderly professor that “nice young women don’t ‘play with science’”. Furthermore, in June 2015, Sir Tim Hunt resigned as honorary professor at University College London after remarking that ‘the trouble with girls’ in labs is that ‘when you criticize them, they cry.’ These examples, though recent, are of course extreme cases and the vast majority of people working in science at university do not hold these opinions of women. Nevertheless, it does seem that sexism could be one factor involved in discouraging female scientists.

“It does seem that sexism could be one factor involved in discouraging female scientists”

The issue works both ways as traditionally female subjects remain so today, for example, very few men take nursing courses despite its basis in science. Stereotypical images of only female nurses and nursing job titles such as sister and matron may well play a part in making men feel that they cannot enter the field. Societal beliefs about what constitutes masculinity also discourages male nursing.

Our culture seems to affect what men and women feel they can study at university which in some cases has developed into undeniable sexism. However, the gender gap has been reducing for some time raising hopes that sexism in the subjects will soon be studied by History students (of both genders!) alone.

Emma Johnson

Image: U.S. Army RDECOM via Flickr

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