Study abroad is primarily a woman’s world, both at Yale and nationwide.
About 75 percent of the roughly 120 Yale students studying abroad this year are females — slightly more than the national average — a percentage that has fluctuated but remained a definitive majority in recent years. Last year, 69 of the 119 Yalies studying overseas — 58 percent — were female, a drop from 69 percent in 2003-04 and 77 percent in 2002-03.
Experts offered a number of potential theories for the greater proportion of females studying abroad, including the historical origins of study abroad, the higher percentage of female language majors at Yale and social conceptions of gender roles, but there remains no definitive explanation for the trend.
Karyn Jones, associate director of International Education and Fellowship Programs, said she is unsure of the exact cause behind the current trend, but she said she thinks the fact that most study abroad programs were launched at women’s colleges may be one explanation.
“Looking at the past, the humanities and social sciences were heavily populated with female students, while men tended to go for the sciences, business and engineering (subjects that were not as widely offered in study abroad programs),” she said. “These days, female and male students are majoring in all areas of study in good numbers, so this doesn’t explain why the men still lag behind when we look at study abroad numbers.”
Daniel Obst, director of membership and higher education services at the Institute of International Education, said Yale’s figures fall in line with the national data. In general, about two-thirds of all college students who study abroad nationwide are female, Obst said. For the 2003-04 academic year, 65.6 percent of those who studied overseas were females nationwide.
The current disparity may be rooted in historical reasons, said Joan Elias Gore, the director of institutional relations at Denmark’s International Study Abroad Program and author of “Dominant Beliefs and Alternative Voices: Discourse, Belief and Gender in American Study Abroad.” When American colleges and universities were revitalized after World War I, there was a movement among educators to keep students in America to strengthen the schooling system here, Gore said. But because the education system in America did not afford the same opportunities to women, she said, many chose to go overseas for schooling.
“It has pretty much always been the case that two-thirds of those studying abroad are female,” Gore said.
When most gender-based strictures on U.S. higher education were removed, Gore said, the gender ratio of study abroad did not change dramatically.
“Even when there are new kinds of programs or programs in new regions offered which start out with a different gender ratio, they almost always end up becoming two-thirds female,” she said.
Some professors attribute the trend at Yale to the fact that most language majors at Yale are female, Jones said. Eight of the 11 Italian majors this year are female, Italian Department chair Giuseppe Mazzotta said, and Jean-Jacques Poucel, director of undergraduate studies for the French Department, said more women than men generally major in French, although three of the four majors in the Class of 2006 are men.
But language department heads said they did not necessarily believe that this was the primary justification for the trend, since not all students who travel abroad are language majors, and their numbers do not always reflect the broader foreign study trend.
East Asian Languages and Literatures Director of Undergraduate Studies Chris Hill said the gender breakdown of majors in his department who choose to go abroad is roughly equal.
“Currently, 44 percent of declared majors in Chinese are women and 56 percent are men,” he said. “Nearly all of our majors study abroad, regardless of gender. I have not noticed any difference in the tendency of men and women to study abroad. Among Chinese and Japanese majors, all are enthusiastic about the idea.”
Poucel volunteered a number of possible sociocultural explanations for the smaller percentage of men in study abroad programs, including a desire to enter the workforce sooner, a sense of obligation to work through college, a perception that study abroad does not directly improve employability, and a concentration of males in science and engineering majors where languages or the liberal arts may be de-emphasized.
Jaclyn Opritza ’07, who studied in France this past semester, said she thinks outdated social conventions are a possible explanation for the trend.
But Mazzotta said he does not think innate differences between men and women serve as an explanation for the trend.
“Sure, one can speak of women’s intellectual curiosity, their openness, etc., but aren’t these traits common to men?” Mazzotta said.
Joseph Hunt ’07, who studied in Capetown, South Africa, this past fall, said he found the skewed gender breakdown in his program strange. Only a few of the 40 students in his program were male, Hunt said.
There is a similar gender breakdown among students studying abroad at other Ivy League universities. At Harvard University, 61 percent of those who studied abroad this year were females. Dartmouth College posted similar figures last year, when 59.8 percent of their students studying abroad were female. At Cornell University, there is a usually a 2-to-1 female-to-male ratio among students studying abroad, said Richard Gaulton, director of Cornell Abroad. At the University of Pennsylvania, females make up 59 percent of those currently studying abroad.