Column: Academic major stereotypes impair gender equality

Poon Singhatiraj, columnist

“Wait, let me guess. You’re a computer science major, right?” a fellow first-year asked me during orientation week. When I told him I was an international affairs major, I was greeted with a look of surprise and a subtle eyebrow raise. 

On the one hand, I’m not surprised by the first reaction. This was only one of many similar reactions I have received when I tell people my major. A sleek black-haired, glasses-wearing Asian male is not exactly the archetype of a humanities major. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel the latter reaction was an instant judgment, consciously or not, of me as a person. 

These judgments are rarely positive. For example, my conservative Asian extended family members sent me subliminal messages through questions like “What can you really do with an international affairs major?” or “You don’t like math or science?” All of these reactions and comments were prompted only by my admission that I was majoring in international affairs: a non-STEM, predominantly female field of study. 

To me, these experiences represent a bigger problem with how people perceive college majors. In most cultures, but especially in Asian families, STEM majors are highly revered, while humanities majors are seen as less desirable and prestigious.

Obviously, this is not a new concept. Any college student could testify that there are distinctly different stereotypes associated with STEM and humanities students. But it seems to me as though majors themselves are gendered – that different fields of study have taken on traditionally ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ qualities

This perception can impact the academic choices of teenagers and young adults, as some might feel pressured to “identify with their own gender group,” as one researcher put it. Men and women who go against these gendered norms open themselves up to scrutiny, which can make them question their own academic choices. Researchers from Georgetown University have argued that this is a significant factor as to why women leave STEM, not because of low grades or loss of interest as some might believe.

This scrutiny can come from all directions. My extended family’s judgment of my decision to pursue a non-STEM major is representative of a bigger problem; research suggests parents are less inclined to support both their sons’ pursuit of a degree in the humanities and their daughters’ pursuit of a degree in STEM.

Scrutiny can also come from educators themselves. My female friend from high school told me stories of how she always felt pressure from her physics teacher to prove she belonged in her high school physics class. With her and the one other girl in the class being called on to answer questions more frequently than their male counterparts, she felt singled out because of her gender.

All of these factors compound together to produce unequal gender participation in both STEM and humanities majors, which has cascading effects. Lower female involvement in STEM fields decreases their economic opportunities and mobility in an era where STEM workers are in greater demand and are paid higher wages. Those pursuing humanities majors can be subject to unfair judgments of their intelligence, even if research has repeatedly shown that the humanities are essential to society.

Scrutiny in the form of subtle comments and actions can discourage people from choosing majors considered atypical for their gender identity. To combat this, in our capacity as college students, we must question personal underlying stereotypes of what the ‘typical student’ for a certain major may look like. Furthermore, we must remind ourselves to not make and act upon subconscious snap judgments based on assumptions. If we want to work toward achieving gender parity in education, we have to start with ourselves.