By Matt Carotenuto
We know there is a gender gap favoring women in college today — and that gap widens when one looks at students going abroad to study. But the huge disparities in parts of the developing world offer important clues about how American men and women perceive the world in higher education today.
As the coordinator of St. Lawrence University’s Kenya Semester Program, I frequently hear this rhetorical question, “Why would I want to go to Africa?” Even as a professor of African history, I have to admit it is a fair question for a parent or student to ask about studying abroad in general. But in over a decade of these discussions, skeptical questions about the benefits of study abroad most often come from male students and their families.
National data suggests that gendered discussions like these are happening all over the country. Nearly 300,000 U.S. college students will study abroad this year. The programs, length and destinations vary widely but the historic data from the International Institute of Education suggests that 65 percent of students leaving the United States will be women.
While national statistics reveal that the majority of study abroad participants are female and overwhelming white, the gendered perception of particular places and programs are hidden in the data. The demographics of study abroad geography and the way we mentor students to see opportunity beyond geographic stereotypes offers important insight for educators looking to bridge the gender gap.
The St. Lawrence Kenya program is one of the oldest study abroad programs in Africa and more than 70 percent of the 2,000 plus alumni who participated have been women. In recent years the program has been nearly 80 percent women. Data from 27 universities across the country also reveals that in 2014-2015, 78 percent of the participants on programs in at least 15 different African countries were women. From elite private schools such as Princeton University and Middlebury College to the entire University of California system, not one school surveyed reported a majority of men on a single Africa program, with percentages reaching as high as 90 percent women.
How can one explain this disparity overall and for Africa in particular? Is it simply a shift in demographics? Are women inherently more adventurous and open travelers?
Conventional wisdom suggests that changing demographics explain most of this phenomena. After all, women represent 57 percent of U.S. college students, and the gap is predicted to continue to widen for a decade. But the demographic shift does not fully explain the historic gendered gap in participation, which has persisted for decades and which educators have trouble addressing.
There is also a perception that majors with large number of male students such as business and STEM fields are not represented abroad. But nearly 49 percent of all U.S. college students who study abroad are in business or STEM related majors, far outpacing social sciences and humanities.
Others have suggested that men have less interest in leaving their peer groups on campus, they have lower GPAs than women, they avoid studying foreign languages, and simply view study abroad as something which is frivolous and will not benefit their long-term professional goals.
Educators have yet to identify the key barriers for men studying abroad. Few, if any, have looked closely at the places and the types of programs men shy away from the most.
More than 50 percent of U.S. students still participate in European programs. The predominance of Europe as the traditional study abroad destination is changing though. Since 1999, when 63 percent of all U.S. students went to Europe, the numbers of students traveling to Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have grown much faster than Europe.
So what does a female-dominated program in Africa look like? What are men avoiding?
The Kenya program is highly experiential in nature and the core structure of the program has been in place for decades. Students take classes in the cosmopolitan capital city of Nairobi but only spend 50 percent of the semester there. Rural and urban home-stays make up four weeks of the program. Three additional weeks are spent on field components throughout Kenya and northern Tanzania, studying questions about local culture, environment and development. The program culminates in a month long independent study/internship which places students individually throughout East Africa.
This model of mixing experiential learning with classroom based instruction and immersive home-stay experiences has been widely replicated in African-based programs across the continent but less frequently in European programs and short-term study abroad opportunities.
Research suggests that men are more drawn to short-term programs connected directly to courses on campus. And immigration data from the United Kingdom, the number one study abroad destination for U.S. students, also suggests that men who do study abroad, occupy a significantly larger percentage of students on programs the United Kingdom than in Africa.
This national trend is reflected at St. Lawrence, where around 50 percent of all students participate on a semester long off-campus program. While the gender gap at St. Lawrence is similar to national averages, men who do study off-campus are drawn to programs in English-speaking cities and countries, such as London and New Zealand. Two of these have strong internship components in finance, none have a foreign language requirements and only one has a home-stay.
But English is one of Kenya’s official languages, the program has internships opportunities in countless fields of study and Kenya is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. So why aren’t men drawn to Kenya in the same ways they are to London? Is there a gendered perception of Africa more broadly?
Africa and other developing regions have an image among students as places where poverty often reigns over opportunity. Understanding and challenging this stereotype is key — and is often cited as a motivating factor for students enrolling in my African-studies courses. However at St. Lawrence and many other institutions across the country, women far outnumber men in African-studies courses across the curriculum.
When male students come to my office to discuss study abroad, Kenya is often far from the top of their list of destinations. However when you ask students what they want to “learn” before asking them “where” they want to go, the answers are quite different. For instance, many male students are surprised to know they could complete an internship with a Fortune 500 company in Kenya, study global governance and economic development, or spend a semester in one of the few cities with a permanent headquarters for the United Nations.
When we change the narrative about opportunity vs geography, students begin to envision how they can fit in. When these opportunities speak directly to career goals and on-campus interests, men seem to respond in greater numbers.
We need to take a lesson from China, now the fifth-most popular destination for U.S. students. Clearly, students today see the country’s economic growth as a sign that knowing more about China is important for their careers in numerous fields after graduation.
As hundreds of thousands of students set out this fall to study abroad, men will again miss out on study abroad, which has been linked to improvements in GPAs, higher paying jobs and greater job satisfaction after graduation.
Men should step out of their comfort zones and venture off-campus in greater numbers or risk being left behind in a system of higher education increasingly dominated by women in enrollment and performance.