A Series of Fortunate Events (Pt. 1)
“He’s…not…coming?” The voice of my friend wavered as she ended the call and gently placed her phone on the table. We looked at each other in silence for a while-the one and only boy who had signed up for the NYSICCSI study abroad program in India with us had dropped out.
This phone-call confirmed what most of us expected would come soon enough–the lone boy didn’t want to be the lone boy. There were a number of reasons, our professor said, but let’s be real. Who wants to go to India with a group of 14 girls…for 4 months? We knew we didn’t. Damn.
Where have all the boys gone?
At that moment in time it felt completely absurd that no boys wanted to join us on an incredible program to an incredible place–the lack of boys in our program, however, is nothing new. The low number of boys studying abroad has pretty much everyone, from statisticians to academics to parents, stumped. No one knows why boys don’t seem to be flocking to the study abroad office and there really hasn’t been a lot of research on the issue. But as someone who emerged from four months in India with 14 girls, only to turn around a month later and fly to France for a second semester with a total of three boys on my program, I’ll start by telling you what I think.
Needless to say, the scarcity of male travelers everywhere I went in the world this year was a topic that my friends and I breached fairly often. I mean, seriously, if they’re not in Asia and they’re not in Europe, where else could they be? I admittedly spent my time in particular parts of Asia and Europe–not scouring each continent for Y-chromosomes, but most of my friends spent at least a part of their junior year abroad and the story was similar elsewhere. The average ratio was about 3-5 boys to 30-35 girls.
So, we (fellow study-abroaders and I) brainstormed a few explanations, the most common one being they all went to London. It seemed to us like the large majority of our male friends were, first of all, way ahead of us in terms of commitment to certain careers/life paths and, second of all, much more interested in getting their careers going. All our guy friends are majoring in economics and government, we said, so naturally they’re drawn to a place like London or New York where they don’t need to worry about a language barrier or cultural challenge, yet can eat up the “fun” parts of study abroad, i.e. the freedom and low homework demand that allows you to party endlessly in a foreign country.
One other thought the crossed our minds–maybe they’re just not interested. Being 21 year-old girls, the approximate 10-year maturity delay that prevents boys from effectively communicating with us is an everyday reality. So perhaps, we pondered, they just aren’t there yet. They just want to kick it with the bros on campus, what could possibly motivate to make any kind of move if they have everything they’re looking for right in front of them?
Boys & Education in General
Our conclusions may have been a little too general and based just as much on stereotypes as reality, but it turns out we weren’t that far off. Before I dive into specifics, though, it’s worth touching on the status of boys vs. girls in higher education more generally. It’s become increasingly evident over the past few decades that the enrollment and performance of women in higher education (and school in general) is far exceeding men. According to a CBS News Report, women make up about 60% of most campus populations. A report from the U.S. Department of Education that was released a few years ago only confirmed this gap. In 2006-07, for example, women earned 58% of the four-year degrees awarded that year, leaving men with a humble 42%. So it seems men are a little out-numbered to begin with.
Why it is that women seem to function better in our current system is unclear–it could be that 10-year maturity gap I previously mentioned, it could be that the system is set up in way that benefit females more, it could be that age of man has passed and we’re entering a new era of hu-womenkind... just kiddin’! Point is–no one knows for sure.
Expectations and Goals
In terms of life-long plans and expectations, I think most people would agree that girls and boys have slightly different priorities. It’s not like every girl is already designing her wedding at age 15, but there is a sense amongst a lot of women that 1) 30 is the end-all be-all and 2) as abstract as it may be now, you’ll be having a family…sometime out there…in the future. While the looming pressure to jump into a career and scale that ladder motivates men to exchange study abroad for work-network-and-have-fun-somewhere-cool, maybe the looming expectation that most females will be mothers sometime kind of soon motivates them to fit their adventuring and world-touring in now – before they’re “tied down.”
In her article, “Women Abroad and Men at Home,” Elizabeth Redden interviews Jill McKinney, associate director of the Center for Global Education at Butler University, who researched the decision-making process of female students who want to study abroad. McKinney found that the three main factors were motherhood, age, and safety:
…they…hope someday to be mothers…they can’t imagine being able to travel and also be a mom…and they…really felt plagued by the age of 30.
And as for safety, the reasoning here is pretty obvious. For women, going on a program to Argentina or Africa provides a more reliable, although not full proof, guarantee that you will not find yourself alone in a dangerous situation. I myself was skeptical of the need for study abroad programs to guide your travel before this year, but having a program in India, amongst many other things, gave me a sense of security (especially since it was my first time). I knew who I could trust, I was surrounded by people who would watch out for me, and, now that I’ve been through the paces, I would feel confident going back and doing it independently.
Many of the study abroad administrators I spoke with suggested that the problem stems from a curricular bias. In general, women dominate languages and the humanities, and study abroad programs tend to favor these disciplines. However, study abroad as an activity, trend, whatever you want to call it – has really taken off recently, and the academic reach of study abroad programs has expanded right alongside its popularity. It may be harder for science students than for literature students, for example, but if you really want to make it work, it's definitely possible to study abroad and take classes relevant to your concentration.
Furthermore, one of the most striking realities about the curriculum discrepancy is that even in fields where men dominate, more women within this field study abroad. Redden reported that men earn 80% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, but according to the Global Engineering Education Exchange (a study abroad consortium for engineers) 30-40% of the participants are female.
Some researchers believe that there’s a collective subconscious culture going on – where studying abroad is just not a “guy thing.” Carol Drogus, the dean of students at Hamilton College, pointed to the fact that more men than women are involved in college sports, and therefore don't want to miss a large chunk of their year or season to study abroad.
In his article “Men and Women Differ in How They Decide to Study Abroad,” Peter Schmidt cites a study presented at the conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education:
The more men interacted with their peers, the less likely they were to intend to study abroad. Peer interactions did not have such an impact on women.
This seems to confirm the anti-study abroad culture idea; if the boys that are interacting more with their peers are less likely to study abroad, their peers, male or female, must be in some way perpetuating the idea that studying abroad isn’t cut out for, isn’t meant for, or maybe just isn’t as easy for boys.
Whether it’s their focus on their careers, commitment to sports, their maturation rate, the curriculum, or their apparent vulnerability to peer influence, boys simply aren’t studying abroad. Maybe study abroad has in some way become feminized, or maybe this new rite of passage for college juniors has not yet become open enough – as it’s not only boys, but also racial minorities, who can’t seem to keep up with white girls (one glance at this year’s Open Doors Report will show you all too clearly). Whatever the reason, this is a dilemma in need of some research and some solutions. Studying abroad gives undergraduates the opportunity to travel in a manner that may never be possible again, and it should not only be available to all, but utilized too.
A Series of Fortunate Events (Pt. 2)
Things did seem pretty dire on that July afternoon. My friend and I consoled ourselves by giving up our research to instead go bake a pizza and recline in a couple Adirondack chairs, while mulling over the prospect of travelling for four months…in India…with only girls. Our anxiety towards the situation was not at all a “I’m not a girls’ girl” kind of thing, or “I can’t go four months without boys,” thing either. It was a, "Wow. That’s a long time to live with, talk to, be around only girls!" And in India? Not having a guy or five to walk down the street with was going to be a challenge.
But, sure enough, September did roll around and we did board that plane to Delhi with 12 other gals. And, come December, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear that we could barely bring ourselves to part. I don’t know if it was the context or the director or the Indian water, but our group fell completely, head-over-heals, in love with each other. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever been a part of a group dynamic that was quite so tight-knit, affectionate, and understanding as that band of 14 Indian women travellers. And – just to clarify – most of us agreed that our anomaly of a group could never have coalesced in such a way if a few boys (or especially if one boy) had been thrown into the mix.
So, even after all this research, I don’t really know where the boys are hiding any better than you do. But, in the meantime, while they attempt to catch up, I have only three words of advice to all of you girls out there who are a nervous part of the majority: Have no fear! It’ll be fine. My experience in India was in no way unique, and most of my friends who had similar experiences in girl-heavy study abroad groups this year found the same results. I’d love to leave you with a clever, snarky final line, but all I’ve got is “remember, girls just wanna have fun!" ...so I’ll refrain and instead wish you the best of luck, girl or boy, surviving and adapting to that female land that is study abroad.
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