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Women's Outreach and Resource Collective | A collaborative community for advocates of gender equity and social justice

We Want You: Boys in the English Department



By: Caroline King

In my Victorian literature class last week, as we were discussing the all-too familiar restrictions under which Victorian women lived, my thoughts drifted elsewhere to those floating behind the blank stare of the guy sitting next to me. Was his disinterest due to the irrelevance of this particular topic to his male self? If he had been a Victorian man and I a Victorian woman, and we had fallen in love, would he have forced me to remain barefoot in the kitchen? Was his trendy outfit (beanie, high-tops, thick-rimmed glasses) a façade masking secret, traditional sympathies? Does he really not know how to feign interest at this point? Look alive, Beanie!

I scanned the room to see if everyone was as bored as he appeared to be. It was then I realized that Beanie is one of only three guys in the entire class.  I thought about my other English classes and realized this ratio holds relatively constant. In my subsequent research about the gender ratios of other majors, I found that men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering major. In some fields of engineering, the percentage of women drops to the single digits.

While the ratios of men to women in fields of study like engineering or computer science are overwhelmingly imbalanced, more and more women are joining their male counterparts in the pursuit of various other STEM career paths. Catherine Riegle-Crumb, an associate professor of STEM education at UT-Austin told NPR that while high school girls and boys take about the same hours of credit in science classes, the boys are generally more likely to take physics, and the girls, biology. Her research also found that in the few schools in which more girls take physics than boys, there is a greater presence of women physicists in the community.

Riegle-Crumb noted that girls are not inherently less interested than boys in fields like physics. She believes that much of the gap can be traced back to subtle messages discouraging young girls from pursuing science-related careers. One of these not so subtle messages appeared in the form of a girl’s tee made by Children’s Place last August.

The tee caused outrage among many, and the company quickly proceeded to remove it from their line. Perhaps even more destructive are the more discreet messages of discouragement that,  due to their commonality, often go unnoticed. Advertisements for toys like Lego’s or building blocks, things that require engineering, are targeted specifically at boys. How often do you see a commercial with a girl playing with a toy construction truck?

Riegle-Crumb argues the change in mindset needs to occur at a much younger age in order for radical change to occur. We need to keep elementary-age girls from losing interest in math and science purely because they think (and are indirectly told) that it is irrelevant to them. Boys, too, need to understand that no area of study is more or less masculine than another. No child should be discouraged from a career path because of gender-related stereotypes. Maybe one day the scale will tip so far that I will have more than three guys in my English class. Here’s to hoping.


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worcuga • April 18, 2014

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