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How to Answer Pesky Questions When You Have a “Man’s Major”

College is full of annoying questions. There’s the endless “How was your break?” when a new semester starts, the “How are you going to get a job in this economy?” and the “Why are you wearing a North Face jacket, leggings and UGGs AGAIN?” Okay, maybe that last one is justified. But there’s one set of questions that’s never okay: The gender-biased questions some collegiettes have to field because they’re studying something that’s perceived as male-centric.
 

From engineering to the sciences and even philosophy, many disciplines are dominated by guys. And that can lead to some frustrating—and even sexist—questions. HC talked with girls in three of those majors: one in biology, one in criminal justice and one in philosophy. These are their thoughts on why the questions come in the first place, as well as how to respond.
 
So, what questions come up? 

Wondering what, exactly, we mean by gender-biased questions? Here are a few examples.
 
Gretchen Geibel, a biology major and chemistry minor at Chatham University, hears “What are you going to do with that?” and “Do you want to be a teacher? Or maybe a nurse?” For the record, she’s not interested in either.
 
Lyndsey, a USC criminal justice major, gets plenty of surprised friends and family asking “You want to be a cop?”
 
Hartwick College senior Jacqueline Seamon, a philosophy major, is used to hearing “What’s a girl going to do with philosophy?” “Doesn’t that major involve a lot of thinking,” and “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you major in English or Art?”
 
Mathematics major Miranda who goes to the University of Chicago, says the most frequent question she gets is “Oh, wow—is it really hard?” And the most frustrating? “How are you going to get a husband like that?”

Where does that curiosity come from? 

What is it that makes people ask the questions listed above? To a large extent, it’s a matter of history.

“Some fields have always been very male-heavy and those are long, long-standing ideas and beliefs by some,” says Carol Specter, director of Career Services at Emerson College.
 
Lyndsey, the criminal justice major, thinks it happens because people are uneducated. Math major Miranda believes she gets awkward questions because some people are inarticulate, and others don’t understand that she doesn’t have the same goals they do.
 
But possibly the biggest reason the questions roll in is that people are used to the status quo—and for many careers and disciplines, that means there are more guys than girls in the average lecture hall. And from that status quo, unfair expectations have developed.
 
“In colleges and universities there are ‘male’ and ‘female’ majors, and there’s sexism— both subtle and overt—that permeates academia,” philosophy major Jacqueline says.

Here’s what to say to make it stop…

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to deal with frustrating major-related questions: Follow them up with an answer so educated and mature that the questioner is proved wrong by your cool professionalism alone. To ensure that they come across as smooth and prepared, each girl we talked to has a few standard responses to the less-than-flattering questions they get asked.
 
Miranda handles questions about the difficulty of her major and the availability of a future husband with cool, practiced answers:
“I typically try to explain that while I work really hard, I actually perform better than most of the males in my classes. I also respond to the husband question by retorting, ‘It takes a very good man to be better than none at all.’”
 
And Jacqueline focuses on why philosophy is a smart choice for her interests and career goals. You can do the same—think about why you love your major, and why it’ll serve you well in the future. Then articulate that!
 
Some extra encouragement…

 

Now you know how to respond when people throw sexist or gender-biased questions your way. But while you’re at it, take some helpful advice from the three girls who are dominating their own male-centric majors.
 
“My advice to other girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors would be to not get discouraged and not let society define their career options for them. There are so many things out there you can do… the possibilities are endless. More women need to realize that men aren’t better than women in these fields, [they’re] just in higher numbers. I really encourage women to go out there, follow their dreams and be a trailblazer for other women.” – Biology major, Gretchen
 
“Meet up with other girls. My girls-only study group got me through my analysis class.” – Math major, Miranda
 
“Women can do anything they put their minds to. If you have a major or career path that is going to be more difficult for you to get into because of sexism, then keep going. You can be good at anything if you want it bad enough, and you’re strong enough to make it.” – Philosophy major, Jacqueline
 
“Don’t sweat it. You know what you want, so go get it.” – Criminal Justice major, Lyndsey

Gaining confidence for the future

For girls who can face questions like these, it can also be a huge help to find a mentor, says Laura Lane, assistant director of University Career Services at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill.
 
That mentor can be a faculty member, the advisor of a major-related club, an alumnus— anyone who’s been there before and understands what you’re facing.
 
“It needs to be someone who believes in the student and will provide guidance and support as they navigate the challenges of their academic and professional career,” Lane says.
 
So take comfort in the fact that other girls know exactly what you’re going through, develop a set of answers to challenge those who question your intelligence or capability, find someone who can help you along the way and never forget how smart, strong and capable you are.
 

Meghan is a senior at Appalachian State University, majoring in Public Relations with a nonprofit concentration. She lives in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina and holds the biased opinion that it's the most heartbreakingly beautiful place in the world.  She spends most of her time surrounded by words - as a contributing writer for Her Campus, the Associate Editor for Editorial Content at The Appalachian, and a blogger for USA TODAY College. She fell in love with journalism when she interned for High Country Press, a newspaper and magazine in North Carolina. She also dabbles in creative writing on her personal blog. In the future, Meghan's interested in any and all careers that involve writing, editing and people. For now, she hopes to see as many places, read as many books, and have as many conversations as she possibly can.  Reach Meghan at meghanfrick@hercampus.com. 
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