Gender Imbalances Persist in Academics

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.’”


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