A Gender Mystery: Why Do More Women Than Men Study Abroad in College?

I just returned to Stanford University after spending a year studying off-campus—first in Madrid, Spain, then Washington, D.C., and finally in Cape Town, South Africa. One of the aspects that stood out to me throughout these experiences was the unbalanced ratio between men and women in all of my programs.

In Madrid, there were 10 males and 27 females. In Washington, D.C., there were 6 males and 18 females. In Cape Town, there were also 6 males and 18 females. It is not just within these programs that I have participated in which the ratios have been uneven. Surveys at Duke University, University of Minnesota, and St. Edwards University, as well as in nationwide surveys, also show that more college undergraduate women take advantage of study abroad opportunities than men, a ratio of around 1:2 or 1:3, depending on the university.

There are two possible reasons why there exists such a disparity. First, men tend to choose majors that have more structured, less interdisciplinary coursework — for example, engineering, computer science, or mathematics — that therefore make studying off-campus more difficult. Students within these majors have to take classes in a specific order, sticking to a strict timeline, leaving little leeway to study off-campus for a full quarter or semester, where classes that would fulfill the requirements for such majors do not exist. In addition, these majors do not "really care if you learn another language or are a world citizen."

On the other hand, women tend to choose majors in the liberal arts. Specifically, the foreign language departments, which typically see greater female enrollment, do value these skills. Therefore, men who are not enrolled in these foreign language classes are less likely to study abroad as most other college programs have foreign language proficiency requirements — unless they are interested in programs in England or Australia.

Second, according to a Washington State University study, male students are not as proactive in planning study abroad experiences. There are some studies that suggest that this is because women are more easily influenced by their parents, faculty members, peers, and classes to do so than are men.

What this finding suggests is that the disparity between men and women studying abroad extends to the disparity between men and women in their paths of studies in the university. While most universities can boast a nearly 50:50 ratio of male and female enrollment at the schools, once within the system, men will choose the “masculine” majors (i.e. sciences) while women go for the “feminine” majors (i.e. liberal arts). Thus, while universities make efforts to close the gender gap in study abroad programs, they must also make more effort at closing the overall gender gap in areas of studies on campuses.