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College holds female majority

Kate Gales | Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The College of Arts and Letters – home to the highest percentage of Notre Dame undergraduates – also enrolls the highest percentage of women, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

Fifty-seven percent of the 2,784 Arts and Letters students are female, a trend that may reflect expectations of future career choices, said political science professor Christina Wolbrecht.

“These issues are part of a broader set of issues in public policy,” Wolbrecht said. “Major choice influences future employment, future earnings and is where the wage discrepancy starts.”

Hugh Page, assistant dean of undergraduate studies, agreed that Notre Dame students of both genders are very forward thinking when determining their undergraduate majors.

“I found students in my classes seriously thinking of quality of life choices and their long term outcomes – graduate schools, service opportunities, post-Notre Dame life,” Page said. “There is a good bit of confusion about how to establish that kind of balance, how to live with the choices you make – are you going to be employed?”

These larger decisions are not immune to gender influence, as five majors in the College – anthropology, psychology, gender studies, English and peace studies – stand out as distinctly female-dominated.


At Notre Dame, 64 percent of anthropology majors are women, a majority that department chair Jim McKenna attributes to a variety of historical and contemporary reasons.

“Anthropology is one of the disciplines in which early on, women played an extremely important role,” he said. “This is historically true and has been a factor in the feminization of anthropology.”

Taking his analysis a step further, McKenna added that the sex discrepancy – real or stereotyped – may also have to do with anthropology itself.

“What I think [the feminization] is concerns the nature of what anthropology is,” he said. “It’s a very nurturing field, a lot of people who go into anthropology really approach their subjects in both professional and personal ways.”

While many men in the field may also possess these qualities, he said, “We do identify, in a stereotypical role, this persona of nurturing, caring, listening, observing and protecting with female qualities.”

McKenna also noted that many of the important figures in the field, such as Margaret Meade and Ruth Benedict, are women. He estimated the faculty of the department as close to equally distributed between men and women – even with “a tilt towards more men than women if you count concurrent professors.”


The field of psychology, in contrast, has not always been associated with female achievement.

“In the past, psychology was very male-dominated,” psychology department professor Dawn Gondoli said. “Now, the field attracts women, and they’re able to be successful in it.”

At Notre Dame, Institutional Research found that as of the fall semester, only 26.2 percent of the 455 declared psychology majors were men.

While women tend to dominate subareas such as social psychology, developmental psychology and counseling, Gondoli added that areas such as neuroscience and quantitative and cognitive psychology put men in the majority.

Ten of the University’s 26 psychology department faculty members are women, as opposed to 64.2 percent of the nationally available faculty, according to the November 2003 Notre Dame Report.

Gondoli predicted that both faculty and student representation would become increasingly female in the next decade.

“There are still older academics, who were predominantly male,” Gondoli said. “Women started to get Ph.D.’s in droves in the 1970’s.”

For students, she said, “it’s either more women than men or will become so in the next ten years.”

Gender studies

Gender studies, however, is inarguably a female-dominated major. Only two of the 27 gender studies majors at Notre Dame are men, according to Institutional Research.

“I think it’s a wider problem of perception,” said Sophie White, assistant professional specialist of gender studies. “A lot of males might be interested, but it’s not easy for them to declare a major in gender studies.

“We certainly have an imbalance – quite a sizable one.”

While the major is clearly more popular among women, individual classes may be close to evenly split thanks to cross-listings, White added.

“We’re one of the largest programs, with close to 100 faculty members,” White said. “We deal with many subjects through cross-listing.”

She also pointed out that many students taking first-year composition use gender as an analytical method in their classes.


While students enrolled in English courses may observe a nearly even split of men and women in their classes, this perception can be misleading – only 34.4 percent of the 378 declared English majors are men.

“I think that there is a very equal representation of men and women in my classes – at least the ones I’ve had so far,” said Valerie Ralph, a sophomore English major.

Like gender studies, the experiences of students in the English department reveal the propensity of Notre Dame students to take a variety of classes outside of their majors. Introductory classes often have a more even split than the higher-level, more specialized classes.

Senior English major Bess Malis said her courses became more female-dominated as they became more advanced.

“There are definitely more girls,” Malis said. “Maybe it has something to do with books and analyzing. … In the English department, a lot of the classes are more appealing to girls.”

She added that she has observed more men in her cross-listed classes, “like Irish-Anglo literature.”

Peace studies

While 52.7 percent of political science students – peace studies’ parent major – are men, 13 of the 17 students in this supplementary major are women.

“Peace studies tends to be more focused on non-violent alternatives,” said Daniel Philpott, a professor of both peace studies and political science. “Political science tends to be more mainstream, more focused on traditional policy and issues … [some would call that the] classic male persona.”

However, Philpott said that his students are doing well regardless of gender.

“There may be some gender discrepancy, but you see both males and females flourishing,” he said.

Page agreed that the success and encouragement of students of both genders was of first importance to the college.

“The thing that concerns me the most is to create an atmosphere in the college that is affirmative and life giving to all of the students which we have,” he said. “Any data antithetic to that gives me concern.”