Women dominate college classes

Sophomore Danielle Jankak, second from left, and freshman Miranda Flaherty, second from right, share a bank of computers with two other female students as they study in Tomlinson Library on the Mesa State College campus.



A six-piece series of children’s books in the Mesa State College bookstore sends a curious message to its majority-female student base.

The set includes four books with boys on the cover, one dressed as a firefighter, one dressed as a police officer and the other two dressed as an astronaut and a race-car driver, with those jobs detailed on the pages inside. The books with girls on the cover offered two “occupations” to aspire to: princess or fairy.

Mesa State graduate Ashley Mates, who works in the bookstore, said she worries sometimes that because there are more women than men in college classes, people have stopped discussing female progress to achieve more and gain more top business and political posts, and let old stereotypes like the ones on the covers of the above-mentioned books slide because of the progress that has been made.

“We need to do a better job of teaching little girls they can be real things,” Mates said.

Presumably, women go to college to get out of the fairy and princess business and pursue careers. Leadership roles in particular tend to require at least a bachelor’s degree, and a woman 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher earns 35 percent more than a woman with some college or an associate’s degree, and almost twice as much as a woman with only a high school diploma.

Education boosts earning power, but it isn’t entirely “the great equalizer.” A woman with a four-year degree or more still earns 73 percent of what a man with the same education earns.

Women in the new millennium are hard-pressed to find many campuses in the United States where there are fewer women than men. Nationally, women account for 57 percent of college students, a ratio similar to Mesa State this year and just 2.6 percentage points above the average at Colorado’s public colleges and universities.

Emily Beery has noticed more women than men in some of her classes and has more female than male colleagues at her job in the Mesa State College Book Store.

But, as is the case with many young women these days, the slightly skewed ratio doesn’t faze her.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” the 22-year-old said.

More women than men are making it to the finish line in college, too. A greater portion of women than men earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and last year women surpassed men in earning doctoral degrees for the first time in the nation’s history.

What women will do with their more-abundant supply of degrees depends on gumption, according to Mates. The 24-year-old is applying to international-development programs at graduate schools, something she said even a few years ago was beyond her wildest dreams.

“A lot of women don’t see themselves being something amazing sometimes,” Mates said.

Although women are enrolling in increasing numbers in some historically male-dominated majors, men remain the majority in Mesa State’s mechanical engineering program, and women are the majority in the teacher education program.

Teacher Education Department Head Valerie Dobbs said 29 percent of education majors at Mesa State are men, up slightly from the previous average. Men are more prominent in the teacher education graduate program, with 32 percent of enrollment.

Men are even more rare in elementary education, but their numbers are growing in that department, Dobbs said. She expects to see more and more men go into teaching in the future, but she’s puzzled why the education field in particular and even college as a whole aren’t as appealing to men.

“It could be we’re just not thinking the way guys think,” Dobbs said. “That’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Department Head Tim Brower said Mesa State’s mechanical engineering program has no problem recruiting men, who make up 91 percent of the 180 students who plan to graduate from the program. It’s not that the department hasn’t tried to attract female recruits. Scholarships and the promise of job opportunities are readily available, and Brower said plenty of female high school graduates are just as prepared as the men for the rigorous math and science work in the program.

Without a more gender-neutral program, Brower worries there won’t be enough homemade engineers to replace Baby Boomers retiring from the industry.

“In America we graduate 70,000 engineers a year. In China they graduate a multitude more each year. We need to graduate more to keep up with demand,” he said.

There are areas in which the genders are reaching equality in numbers, and some may be surprised to hear two of those areas are math and statistics. Lori Payne, head of Mesa State’s computer science, math and statistics department, said math and statistics classes are pretty much half men and half women at the college. Payne said the stereotype that women aren’t good at math or science may exist in the back of some people’s minds, but she hasn’t heard a female student say she wondered if she were capable in either area “in decades.”

Computer-science classes at the college, however, have been “heavily weighted toward men for the past few decades,” Payne said, something she blames on the allure of video-game programming for males.

“I have whole classes where there isn’t a woman,” she said. But in others, “We’ve seen it where it’s getting a little more balance.”

Mesa State student Roxanne Labriola, 21, has noticed more women than men in classes related to her major: accounting. She wonders if some men delay or avoid college because of job opportunities available without a degree.

“The men I’ve encountered in accounting are very smart, but a lot waited to go to school,” Labriola said. “I think they have oil field and construction opportunities right after high school. I think you’re more likely to get (those jobs) as a guy.”

Jobs on the ground may not require a degree, but construction management does, which is one reason why Mesa State ushered in a construction-management major in 2007. Even though the program’s first, and so far only, graduate in 2010 was a woman who now works for FCI Constructors, construction-management Professor Charles Gains said the program of 90 students is down to two female undergraduates.

Even with low numbers, Gains said acceptance of women in the construction-management field has changed.

“The change that’s occurred has been on the side of acceptance from the men,” he said. “Men in management are so far beyond that machismo.”

Mesa State mechanical engineering major Stephanie Lenhart, the daughter of a construction worker, said she picked her major in October without thinking of it as a breakthrough for women or a statement, something more common as the women’s movement of the 20th century gets further away in history. Lenhart simply chose her future career because she wanted to do something hands-on.

“I didn’t think about” there being more men in the program, she said. “It doesn’t matter.”


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