By Alexandra Krauska
By Alexandra Krauska
Rabat – As a woman interested in travelling the world, it seemed perfectly logical to study abroad for a semester in high school and find an internship abroad after my first year of college. It surprised me to find out that the majority of my peers were also women, and very few of them were men.
A study by the Institute of International Education found that almost two thirds of American students in study abroad programs in 2014 were women, while only one third of them were men.
I understand that everyone has different reasons for going abroad, whether it be the travel experience, learning a foreign language, building a resume, tasting the exotic alcoholic drinks – a lot of them – or flirting with attractive people. It would seem that few of these things are specific to one gender. I don’t like gender stereotypes, or making assumptions about a person’s interests or academic pursuits based on their gender, but with that great of a disparity, a difference of over 30 percentage points, there has to be something about gender that makes an international experience more appealing to women than men.
My area rep during my high school exchange in Italy theorized that it was because boys are immature and “scemo,” a word meaning stupid or silly. They would rather chase after girls or watch a football match than spend a year abroad. The girls tended to be more devoted to their studies and took a more serious approach to their high school years, she said.
I had three host brothers, two of whom were considering studying abroad. The oldest refused, because he’d have to take time off from track and field training. The middle brother was considering it, but was not certain. The youngest was absolutely in love with the United States and at nine years old was determined to study abroad there.
Of the other exchange students in my program, there were more women than men. At the time, I attributed this to the country, Italy being a destination to find fashion, romance, and handsome, well-dressed men. Based solely on gender stereotypes, I assumed it would be more appealing to women.
It seemed like a few of the students studied abroad just to have a good time, rather than seriously study the language or the culture, and it seemed that this tended to be true for more of the male students than the female ones. This is based completely on anecdotal evidence, but it’s something to consider.
Reflecting on my experience and that of my other female friends, we were more interested in being close with our host families, learning the language, and for some, doing well in school. Not all of us needed to do schoolwork during our exchange – I had already graduated from high school, and others were going to redo the year in their home countries – so those that did excel in school were going above and beyond.
I assumed that the generalizations I made about male and female students during my study abroad were just for my program or our host country, and that other programs would have different demographics, but much of what I observed is backed by research.
“One of the anecdotal reasons that men participate in fewer numbers is that they may tend to be more career focused and therefore likely to make decisions based on what the value will be for them financially and career wise,” said Bill Clabby, the Vice President for Global Initiatives at St. Edward’s University. “If they can’t draw a link between studying abroad and career opportunities, they are less likely to pursue a program. Men also may think they can go abroad later when they have jobs and employers will pay for travel.” Again, gender stereotypes can lead to a poor understanding of people, but in this case, they may be informative.
Another factor can be the choice of field of study and the demographics of those departments. For example, STEM fields have a larger percentage of male students, and have more demands on a student’s academic schedule. Humanities fields, international studies, foreign languages, and other programs that would encourage studying abroad tend to have a higher percentage of female students.
Some people have made the argument that men do not see a study abroad experience as academically rigorous, and that for them there is little appeal to a “life-changing experience.” Samantha Brandauer, from Dickinson College, and Rebecca Bergren, from Gettysburg College, conducted research on the male mentality around study abroad. They found that female students have flexible social groups and see multiple benefits in studying abroad, but male students are more likely to stay on campus to remain involved with their fraternities, sports teams, or friend groups.
Bergren said that “If institutions are randomly, in my view, saying you need a [GPA] of 3.0 for participation it immediately takes a huge amount of males out of the pool.” Research conducted at The George Washington University and University of Washington found that men in college often take fewer credits and have lower GPAs than women do. In the four-year study, the average cumulative GPA for females was 3.1, but only 2.97 for males.
Coming to Morocco this summer to work for Morocco World News, I figured that the street harassment and Islamic cultural practices may deter women from travelling there. This has proved to be a false assumption, as I now work in an office with four other international female interns and only one male one.
Chris Thomas, the only male intern currently at Morocco World News, studied abroad last semester to improve his language and cultural skills, abilities that are critical to his intended career in international politics. He believes that many of his male peers “simply don’t have the same passion for travelling or cultural exploration that I or many of my colleagues do.” He added that others have intense requirements for their major. “[They are] very bogged down in the path that they have to follow, this course, this pre-req, and they’re stuck in this track, so they simply don’t have the time to study abroad.”
According to U.S. News, two universities, including the Soka University of America and Goucher College, have implemented a study abroad requirement for undergraduate students. By prioritizing the international experience they hope to develop an “intellectual grasp of the world in all its diversity,” according to Soka University’s website. Both of these universities have a very high percentage of female students – Soka has 60 percent women, and Goucher has 67 percent women. And still, in order to study abroad students need to have passed their language classes and have a sufficient GPA. These factors would favor women, based solely on GPA statistics.
So far, strategies to improve the gender gap include offering more academically intense programs, especially in STEM fields. However, if men still are uninterested in leaving their social groups, can’t miss a part of their class sequence, or don’t have a sufficient GPA to qualify for a study abroad program, the gender gap will not change. There are other factors that need to change first, before a greater number of men pursue a study abroad
“Ultimately it just has to do with what they’re looking for in the experience abroad,” said Thomas, about men in study abroad programs. In general, men are not pursuing the “life-changing experience” or the cultural and language skills unless it will help their careers. In short, they’re not looking for what an experience abroad has to offer.
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