Disparities in Study Abroad

Sarah Cornett

Anyone who’s studied abroad knows that the pool typically doesn’t represent the average American college student population. Many programs abroad attract students with a fairly consistent background––most typically white, female, and middle/upper-middle class. Statistically speaking, not unlike Whitman itself.

The decision to study abroad is a personal one, and each student whether at Whitman or another school has to consider a significant number of factors. Finances, major completion, and interests are just a few of the questions students hoping to spend a semester off-campus must consider when beginning to plan.

These factors and the decisions students make because of them result in a pool of participants that is often fairly homogenous. One of the most obvious and striking disparities in studying abroad, at Whitman and in United States colleges and universities in general, is gender distribution.

Nationwide, the college and university population runs about 44 percent male and 56 percent female, an uneven balance that is familiar and even more pronounced at Whitman.

For studying abroad, however, this gender disparity is far more striking. According to a Duke University study of this trend, a solid two-thirds of all students studying abroad in 2010 were female.

Whitman tracks gender, major, and location of study abroad participants. An examination of that data reveals that the ratio of female to male study abroad participants at Whitman has hovered around two-to-one for the past five years, mirroring national trends.

For the most recently tracked year, 2012-2013, 62 men went abroad, versus 120 women. While Whitman is known to be majority female––57 percent versus 43 percent in the most recently available information––the disparity in study abroad is much higher.

Why is it that males are so underrepresented in studying abroad, at Whitman and nationwide? Studies like the one commissioned by Duke cite language requirements, the necessity of significant planning, academic and career planning obstacles as potential motives for men to make the decision to stay on campus.

“This is a question that is discussed frequently by those of us in the field of study abroad and we would love to change the trend so that more men did not miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Susan Holme, Director of Off-Campus Studies (OCS).

“The Whitman study abroad participation in which 70 percent are women and 30 percent are men is nearly identical to the national average,” she said. “So Whitman is not unique in this phenomenon.” 

The most frequently cited answer used for explaining the large rift in the study abroad population is major requirements. Statistically, more men than women major in departments like engineering, math, computer science, or hard sciences that rely on hefty requirements. Going abroad thus requires significant planning, and often is impossible.

At Whitman, many students choose to double major, which leads to similarly large amounts of required courses that must be taken on campus.

“I wanted to go abroad, I certainly considered it,” said junior Art and Philosophy double major Jack Swain. “But my double major certainly influenced my decision. I thought I would get the most of my education by staying here and traveling on my own.”

But the reasons as to why Whitman males stick on campus were unclear to Swain.

“I have no idea what to contribute to it. Clearly there’s this trend, but I genuinely don’t know why the split is so great,” he said.

Students on Whitman-approved abroad programs noticed significant gender disparities in their pool of participants.

Junior Spanish major Jenna Stanley studied abroad in Granada, Spain through the Institute for International Education of Students (IES).

“There were about 80 of us, and close to 60 were women and twenty were men. It felt a lot like Whitman,” she said.

The OCS office began efforts last year to lessen the gender gap by creating “For Men Only” lunches in which male students learned details of study abroad programs. Seven new OCS interns have done outreach in residents halls, a program new to this year.

These outreach efforts appear to be paying off, according to Holme.

“The OCS staff has noticed that we have been advising many more men than usual this year about study abroad for 2015-16 and hope that translates into higher participation rates among this year’s second-year class,” she said.