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I was talking with my supervisor at work one day, explaining to him why feminism is important for both women and men, when he asked me about the value of my women and gender studies degree. When I asked him why he wanted to know, he laughed through his next words about the job market and money and all that good stuff. So I answered his question with another one: What do you study and why? He said he’s an economics major because it will lead to probable opportunity after college. I asked him if he really loves economics and he told me no, but he knows it has promise. Finally I answered his question: I study feminism because I learn something I value and am inspired every day by my teachers, classmates and the material I am taught—but I also recognize that I feel as though I have the choice to study what I love, without feeling the major pressure of studying what would make me financially successful.
I came into freshman year as a theater major but decided to shift paths, and now I study creative writing and women’s studies. This was a decision I made based on a change of heart that was greeted by nothing but support for studying what I am passionate about. When people ask me about my degree-in-progress, I am always proud to tell them what I study, until the bit of dismay hits and the question melds into, “So what are you going to do with that?” I’ve come up with a lot of answers to that question, many of which look like bright potentials for myself, but none of which I felt like I had to consider when I was choosing what I wanted to study.
Why people choose certain majors has been on my mind for a while now. I have grown saddened to realize that I feel different pressure than many men might when it comes to choosing a major. People usually think what I study is “cool” and “interesting,” but no one reacts like they would if I told them I studied neuroscience.
Surely different subjects have different kinds of challenges in terms of schoolwork, but what makes different genders choose different majors, and how can we judge the value of those choices?
My supervisor is not the first or last man to say that he chose to study something in business and finance because of the opportunities it might bring, and I’m not the first or last woman to want to study something in more creative and social fields. This difference is not coincidence, it’s historical. While women have certainly been more integrated into the workforce in recent decades, the expectation between the sexes in the job market in regards to the primary breadwinner has not changed enough. This pattern is reflected in our own CU Boulder statistics.
CU’s Office of Planning, Budget and Analysis compute all undergraduate and graduate students at the end of the fiscal year in different breakdowns. One of the categories shows how many students of each gender earn degrees in different schools. These are the numbers for 2014:
Arts and Sciences Female: 2,295 Male: 1,924
Architecture and Planning F: 56 M: 98
Business F: 266 M: 422
Business MBA F: 31 M: 99
Education F: 63 M: 24
Engineering F: 323 M: 1,011
Journalism F: 125 M: 63
Law F: 77 M: 89
Music F: 62 M: 49
These numbers are difficult to digest. Men outnumber women in the school of engineering by a ratio of more than 3 to 1. Women make up only 39 percent of the undergraduate business program; and also earned only 36 percent of the architecture and planning degrees in 2014. With regard to the stereotypically less money-earning degrees in the liberal arts and sciences, journalism and music schools, men are the clear minority.
So how much of a choice do we really have when our studies are not just for inspiration, but also for our futures? We would be foolish to assume that our interests are naturally gendered. Regardless of the more level playing-field in today’s job market, different genders are still pushed toward different areas of study to play different roles: men are supposed to study for money-making careers, and women can take what’s left.
I had the opportunity to attend college, and I chose to study something that really matters to me and something I really enjoy. I did not, however, feel the responsibility of my opportunity—an opportunity which women have had for less than 200 years—to study something that will make me a stronger candidate in the workforce. Part of choice is just that: choosing. But the options I felt I had when selecting my major were different than the options a man may have felt he realistically had. Because although I can enter the workforce and will do so in a field that is important to me, I don’t worry about doing so well as a “breadwinner” as a man may feel pressured to.
Perhaps there is an essence of “of course” when it comes to majors. What are we actually reminded of when we see statistics like these? Maybe my supervisor laughed because he wasn’t surprised and, as these statistics show, he had no reason to be. There is an obvious divide between men and women and areas of study. How we treat this information, however, is what can make the numbers matter differently.
As students, we should be encouraged to study what we choose. It’s wishful thinking, I realize, when we have been so severely socialized to take on certain responsibilities because of our genders. Women and men should be able to choose majors based on what they prefer, whether that means earning money with a more practical degree or enjoying a Liberal Arts field. Women are just as capable of pursuing STEM/business-type degrees, and in 2015, we shouldn’t be expecting our men pick a major based on its earning potential—both sexes have the ability to be “breadwinners” in today’s society.
On the other hand, we also need to stop the tendency to disrespect the traditionally “feminine” areas of study. Women have typically filled the less practical majors, but that doesn’t mean that they’re less-than for that reason. They may not make as much money, but they further our ability to shape society and to understand ourselves, and those are assets that humanity cannot move forward without.
What we can all do is support each other. How you spend your time in college is vital and can be all the more meaningful if it’s put toward something that is important to you. Part of that being possible is considering how you react the next time a person tells you what they major in. We need to salute our writers and economists all the same. We need all of the degrees to complete our diverse society, after all. As citizens, we have the responsibility to make way for all genders to pursue the opportunities that inspire them, without pressure and without discouragement.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Dani Pinkus at firstname.lastname@example.org.