An Inside Look: What It’s Like to Be a Female in a Male-Dominated Major

Entering university as a history major, I was eager to learn and challenge myself academically. My eyes were wide open to all aspects of university life and I took every leadership opportunity available to me. Being involved or confident in myself was not an issue for me. 

However, I added another major in third year (medieval and medievalism studies) which, like history, is also a very male-dominated major. At this point, I began to experience more and more gender inequality issues in the classroom. This was a slow realization for me and, overall, very subtle. As I began to talk with other female classmates about their similar experiences, it became evident to me that this experience was not unique to just myself. 

According to the 2016 Canadian Census results, more than 40.7 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 have a bachelor’s degree, and more than 50.6 per cent of all Canadians aged 25 to 35 with a doctorate are women (Statistics Canada, 2017). Stats Canada also predicted that the female population in post-secondary will continue to grow (Statistics Canada, 2017). 

If there is a higher representation of women in post-secondary institutions, how is it possible to have a negative experience in the classroom? Simply put, there are still subjects that lack the female representation reflected in their statistics. 

Class sizes got smaller as I progressed through university, and it is in these smaller class settings that I realized I was being treated differently by my male peers and professors (in very subtle ways).

Some common experiences my friends and I have shared are:

- being talked over by male classmates

- having your argument re-stated by a male classmate and then acknowledged by the professor

- being belittled by professors 

- not being taken seriously by male peers
Now, I should clarify that not all men or people who identify as men treat women like this in the classroom. Also, in most cases, men do not realize that they do these things in the classroom. I have many close male friends who do this without realizing. There is no malicious intent or even recognition that they do it. The issue is not men or their masculinity: it is society’s normative practices that keeps gendered practices in place (Davis, Klobassa, 2017). 

As a woman in a male-dominated major, I thought it was normal to be talked over. I ignored my frustrations when small, subtle things would happen in class that annoyed me. I simply said “it was okay” — and in a way, it was. Worse things happen all over the world constantly. Even now I still do not realize it is happening, because society has also made it normal for myself, as a woman, to be talked over or even treated differently. However, when a university advocates for equality in the classroom, it is important to recognize that it’s not always true. 

Looking back, I realize that examples of experiencing this inequality in the classroom happen most during group work, active learning and other engaging activities. In a study done by Amanda Irvin in 2017, she made her university students take a self-assessment in the class to see how students viewed themselves (Irvin, 2017). Based off of the results, Irvin came to the conclusion that female students consistently downplayed themselves, whereas the male students overrated their abilities in the classroom (Irvin, 2017). Irvin also states that women often do not get as much validation in classroom settings because they are less likely to be the first to speak, as women rather think more critically and take time to share their opinions (Irvin, 2017). Irvin also points out that the “imposter syndrome” and “confidence gap” are heavily associated with predisposed notions of feminine roles in society (Irvin, 2017). Overall, there are cultural perceptions of women that become evident in the classroom that “determine” how a female should act and behave. Especially due to the fact that most women undervalue their own work, as seen in the self-assessment study by Irvin, it becomes clear that my experiences are not unique to me. 

The important part of recognizing that gendered inequality still occurs in the classroom is the awareness it raises. I am now aware of this, and now I actively stand up for myself. My perspective is reflected in my experiences and is unique to me. You may be reading this and have never had the same experience as me — and that is totally ok. Take this as an awakening to the still prominent social conditions that reinforce these environments of gendered inequality. Majoring in history and medieval/medievalism studies at university has, overall, been an amazing opportunity for me. Being in a male-dominated major has made me more resilient and confident in myself because I realized that if people are going to talk over me or treat me differently, I have to stand up for myself. 

Sources:

Davis, Tracy, and Vern Klobassa. “Honouring the ‘Face Behind the Mask’ Interrogating Masculine Performatives as Counter-Hegemonic Action”, In Critical Approaches to Women and Gender in Higher Education. Edited by Pamela L. Eddy et al., E-book, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, ProQuest, ebookcentral-proquest-com.libproxy.wlu.ca/lib/oculwlu-ebooks/reader.action?docID=4786827.

Irvin Amanda, “The female ‘Confidence Gap’ and feminist Pedagogy: Gender Dynamics in the Active Engaged Classroom” In Critical Approaches to Women and Gender in Higher Education. Edited by Pamela L. Eddy et al., E-book, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, ProQuest, ebookcentral-proquest-com.libproxy.wlu.ca/lib/oculwlu-ebooks/reader.action?docID=4786827.

Statistics Canada. “Education in Canada: Key Results from the 2016 Census.” The Daily, Stats Canada, 29 Nov. 2017, www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/171129/dq171129a-eng.htm.