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Gender Imbalances Persist in Academics

By Nikita Kansra and Sabrina A. Mohamed, Crimson Staff Writers

In 1992, a Teen Talk Barbie doll was released. Shortly after it began selling, it went from saying 270 phrases to 269. The manufacturing company, Mattel, Inc., took out one phrase—”math class is tough”—after receiving criticisms for fueling a stereotype that women were less capable at quantitative disciplines.

While that incident took place more than two decades ago, the stereotype endures: that men are innately more tuned to excel in quantitative sciences where women are better suited to study softer disciplines. And at Harvard, gender ratios confirm a slight bias.

“I actually had no idea that it was going to be all female,” said Tenley A. Malmquist ’13 about her concentration, anthropology. “We joke about it.”

Anthropology at Harvard remains one of the most imbalanced concentrations in the social sciences, with the percentage of male concentrators at about 22 percent in spring 2011 and 17.5 percent in 2012.

“You kind of can’t miss it,” said Elizabeth “Penny” Rew, the undergraduate coordinator for anthropology.

Though the size of small departments can skew the gender ratios of departments in the social sciences, the trends seem fairly consistent. But students and faculty members say that this visible imbalance is not a function of gender predispositions, the controversial debate the Barbie doll sparked—and more influenced by social norms and career aspirations.


In much of popular culture, the guys typically take derivatives while the girls recite poems, and in older academic literature, men were determined to be more quantitative-minded while women were seen as more humanities-oriented. But Harvard faculty members and students say that stereotype might be only that—and does not explain the gender ratios within Harvard concentrations.

“It’s certainly not anything to do with the [difference between] hard and soft sciences,” said Cheryl B. Welch, director for undergraduate studies for the department of government has become a more balanced concentration. Between the years 2006 and 2010, the percentage of male concentrators in the government department dropped from about 63 percent to about 48 percent of all concentrators, with men now forming a slight minority.

That trend is in line with current scholarship on the topic. According to a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, differences in academic performance by gender have narrowed, with only a trivial difference in outcomes, since the 21st century. A study published by the U.S. Department of Education was even more specific in quantifying this marginal difference; the report found the relationship between sex and quantitative skills in the classroom scored a .1 on a scale of 0 to 1.

“Undergraduates come in with very similar interests and very similar training,” government professor Beth A. Simmons said. “I don’t believe that men are more drawn to mathematical modeling than [women]—all the women I speak to have really good econometrics training.”


But while an innate difference between men and women might not determine the gender ratios inside the classroom, existing unbalanced ratios might be self-perpetuating, Harvard students said. The perception, they said, of some concentrations to be less “manly,” for example, might push men away from certain concentrations.

Between the years 2006 and 2010, the average proportion of males among the degree candidates in sociology and psychology were about 31 percent and 29 percent, respectively. The anthropology department’s average ratio of 26 percent was lower still.

“Your buddies are econ majors,” Rew said of male undergraduates. “If you’re a guy, it seems that you’ve got to choose what some may think of as a ‘guy concentration.’”

And it works both ways. Psychology concentrator Alexa Fishman ’13 said that while she was unsure about what might lead to the skewed gender ratios, she thought her concentration might pull more females because of the perception of its post-graduation work.

“Psychology is a discipline where a lot of people go into counseling,” she said, adding that the stereotype of “lying on a couch and talking about feelings” might draw more females into the department.

“The default is, ‘Oh, this is what men study,’“ said Amanda I. Morejon ’13, a sociology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality joint concentrator. “That’s unfortunately socially constructed off these very old fashioned ideas—that men are logically based and women are more creative-minded.”


For many, economics serves as a pre-professional concentration of sorts, the closest many see to an undergraduate business degree, even though the department does not identify as such.

“My impression is that 50 to 80 percent of ec concentrators, by the time they are juniors, have a pretty good idea about what they want to do,” said economics director of undergraduate studies Jeffrey A. Miron. He added that finance, consulting, law school, and business school are the most frequently sought paths post-graduation.

Economics, the largest concentration at the College, has historically posted a higher percentage of male undergraduates; between 2006 and 2010, the proportion of male degree candidates ranged from 63 to 73 percent, according to the Harvard University Fact Book.

Rew said that career pressures may have influenced gender ratios in the social sciences, stemming from long-held perceptions of men as breadwinners.

“Women are less afraid to choose a non-conventional major like anthropology,” she said. “Although women may expect to pursue the same distinguished careers as men, I suspect that when choosing their college majors, fewer men than women are absolutely comfortable in exploring or committing to some of the less-traveled concentration options offered at Harvard.”


But Harvard classrooms show greater diversity in gender than classrooms in other universities across the nation. Because the ratios in the classrooms are not exaggerated as other national universities, students said that they can comfortably ignore any imbalance.

In economics, 70.2 percent of degrees were conferred to men across the country in 2009-2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Harvard awarded 63.7 percent of degrees in economics to men and 36.3 percent to women.The national percentage for degrees award to men in psychology nationally is 23.0 percent; at Harvard it was 29.5 percent.

The national percentage for sociology nationally is 30.6 percent for men and 34.1 percent at Harvard.

At Harvard, students said they don’t see the imbalances.

“Maybe I don’t pay attention to it, but I’ve never felt, ‘Man, there aren’t enough girls in this class,’” economics concentrator Jacques A. Barjon ’13 said.

Neither do students pay attention in the converse, psychology concentrator Francisco D. Hernandez, Jr., ’13 said. “It’s not like I go to class and all I see are women,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me—I don’t think students on campus think about that.”

Still researchers show concern about the impact that a continued trajectory of divided classrooms might have in education.

Stereotype threat, the anxiety experienced by an individual who is afraid to confirm an unfavorable stereotype about her racial or sexual group, can hamper academic performance among female students studying traditionally male-dominated tracks such as physics or similarly, and among male students in female-slanted academic fields. For example, a March 2005 study published by Psychological Science reported that stereotype threat negatively influences female performance on mathematics tests.

While divided classes can encourage these negative stereotypes, gender imbalance can also influence power dynamics and negotiation ability of students in the classroom. Boys view themselves as significantly more entitled than girls, and more likely to confront teachers about unfair grades, suggests a December 2008 study by the Journal of Genetic Psychology.

Still, Harvard represents a more progressive environment in gender imbalances within academic campuses. In ‘Mean Girls,’ Lindsay Lohan joins the high school Mathletes team, and is the only student girl on the team. While Harvard retains some unequal gender ratios, women do not have to be afraid to be the only female in the room.

—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at

—Staff writer Sabrina A. Mohamed can be reached at

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Social Sciences DivisionGender and Sexuality