The double-edged sword of gender equality

Written by: Randy Olson

Primary Source: Randal S. Olson

Yesterday, I charted the trends in Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women in the U.S. using the NCES 2013 Digest of Education Statistics, and found that there has been a glaring gender disparity in Computer Science and Engineering majors for more than 40 years. In that post, I focused on the gender disparity in CS&E, but my readers were quick to point out that there are also glaring gender disparities in favor of women in certain majors as well.

To better visualize these gender disparities, I inverted yesterday’s chart and plotted the percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to men over time below. You can download the data set used for this chart here.


The four most female-dominated majors in the U.S. are:

  1. Health Professions (85% women): nursing, veterinary medicine, dentistry, etc.
  2. Public Administration (82%): social work, public policy, etc.
  3. Education (79%): pre-K, K-12, higher education, etc.
  4. Psychology (77%): cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, etc.

These four majors alone comprise 25% of all college degrees conferred nowadays, yet most conversations surrounding the degree gender gap focus on the relatively unpopular Computer Science and Engineering degrees (only 6% of all college degrees, combined).

Why do we disproportionately focus on majors where women are underrepresented, when there’s a much larger set of majors where men are vastly outnumbered by women? Especially given the fact that women earn 60% of all college degrees in the U.S., there seems to be some severe reporting bias going on here.

For example, male educators are often barred from being left alone in a room with a student, for fear that he will sexually harass the student when no one is watching. (Note: Female educators are allowed to be alone in a room with a student without issue.) That’s like preventing a female computer programmer from logging into her laptop without supervision, for fear that she’ll go watch porn instead of work. How is that anything but gender discrimination? Even worse, it’s not uncommon for students to falsely accuse male educators of sexual misconduct, which ruins his career as an educator regardless of the truth of the matter.

In the Health Professions, men face an altogether different kind of gender discrimination. Perhaps best highlighted by the 2000 film Meet the Parents, male nurses are often the butt of a joke because they’re working in what is considered a “traditionally female” profession. Societal pressures steer men away from these “traditionally female” professions, just as they do for women in professions that are “traditionally male.” Yet how often do we hear about the plight of male nurses on the news?

Gender equality is a double-edged sword. If we want to work toward gender equality for women, we need to work toward gender equality for men too. Women aren’t alone in their struggle against discrimination. It’s about time we acknowledged that.

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Randy Olson is a Computer Science graduate research assistant at Michigan State University in Dr. Chris Adami’s lab specializing in artificial intelligence, artificial life, and evolutionary computation. He runs a research blog where he writes about Python, scientific computing, evolution, and AI. Randy is an ardent advocate of open science and regularly travels the U.S. to teach researchers scientific computing skills at Software Carpentry workshops.