The Gender Gap: Students weigh in on being the minority in stereotypically single-gendered majors at UA


Many female engineering students and male nursing students experience a large gender gap in their majors. CW | Marie Walker

Becca Murdoch

You walk into a classroom, students surrounding you on all sides, but something feels slightly off – you are one, if not the only person, of your gender in attendance. This is not a reality for everyone at The University of Alabama, but it is for many female engineering students and male nursing students, two of the colleges at the University with the most staggering gender gap. 

These two schools have been traditionally and universally recognized to follow certain gender lines. According to the University website, 55 percent of the University are female and 45 percent are males. With only 24 percent of all students enrolled in the College of Engineering, 14 percent of the University, identifying as female and 10.2 percent of students in the College of Nursing, 5 percent of the University, identifying as male, there is a clear disparity in gender representation. 

“The problem of recruiting females to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields is an issue nationally,” said Charles Karr, dean of the College of Engineering, on the gender gap in his particular field. “The faculty and staff of the UA College of Engineering have worked hard to recruit and retain women to study engineering and computer science.” 

Brian Dickson, an instructor in the College of Nursing and faculty advisor for the Men in Nursing Association at the University, attributes the disparity in his college to the perpetuated stigma surrounding males in the field of nursing. 

“I think a lot of the stigma in the ’60s and ’70s was because there was a lot of media portrayal of women as nurses, and that’s a big thing we’ve had to overcome, because people automatically have this stigma of nursing as a female profession,” Dickson said. 

Alex Marsh, a senior majoring in nursing, said he personally has not felt the effect of a stigma against male nurses. 

“I think it’s one of those things where to be offended, you have to be the one who is defensive about it,” Marsh said. “At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. You’re there to care for your patient – male, female, that shouldn’t really have an effect.” 

As for Jennifer Sherwood, who holds a doctorate in biological and chemical engineering, she has noted some discrepancies between overall experiences for each gender. 

“One of the things I’ve noticed males do to females is sort of make an assumption of, ‘Oh, you don’t know how to do something,’ so they want to help you or take over doing it for you instead of just letting you do it yourself,” Sherwood said. “Sometimes, and not with all males of course, but sometimes people make assumptions that you’re a girl and can’t do something.”

Gender differences are not always a bad thing though. Katie Jarmon, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, worked at Evonik, a co-op in Birmingham where she worked with pharmaceuticals. 

Jarmon found her home at Evonik through the Society of Women Engineers chapter at the University. 

“Engineering really has come a long way,” Jarmon said. “From my work experience at Evonik, they picked female co-ops because of the work ethic and typically legible handwriting.”

Dickson also pointed out differences in his male and female students when teaching them. 

“Traditionally I think the female students are sometimes a little more apprehensive with things whereas the male students are more ready to jump in, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing,” Dickson said. 

Austin Justice, a male nursing student in his third semester of the program, spoke of nursing in highly positive terms, only pointing out small issues. 

“The only problem I’ve run into with being a male nurse is during clinicals; of course, some of your female patients want a female nurse,” Justice said. 

When it comes to selecting a major and choosing a career path, the support of one’s family plays an important role. Fortunately for Pat Hubbard, a male nursing student also in his third semester of instruction, his family was very supportive of his choice. 

“I didn’t know how my dad was going to take [my decision to pursue nursing], but he was actually like, ‘Go for it,’ ” Hubbard said. “My mom definitely wanted me to [major in nursing], as well as my grandparents. Because my grandmother is a nurse, she told me about all the opportunities, especially as a male because of course there are not as many of us in the field.”

In both the College of Engineering and the College of Nursing, there are organizations that work to help those in the minority in terms of gender. For engineering, the Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, provides women with opportunities to learn and grow in a community of female engineering students. Men in Nursing helps to recruit male nursing students as well as foster discussions concerning men’s health. 

With both efforts from each college and societies that help increase gender diversity in their respective fields, faculty in both engineering and nursing see the gender gap shrinking in the near future. 

“We have seen gains in the growth of women coming to the College [of Engineering] in recent years,” Karr said. “In fact, our increased enrollment of women seeking bachelor’s degrees has outpaced enrollment growth of the college.”

Due to the ever-prevalent demand for nurses and the retirement of the baby boomer nursing generation, Dickson also recognizes a decrease in the scope of the gender gap in the college of nursing. 

“I do see it closing,” Dickson said. “It’s never going to be close, but I see in the 10 years a pretty drastic jump in men in nursing, and I would go out on a limb and say 15 to 20 percent of the registered nurses in the country will be males by 2025.” 

In response to the stigma surrounding nursing, Justice explained the choice behind pursuing nursing. 

“If [a student interested in nursing] is passionate about helping people and they really like the nursing field, they’re not going to let the stigma of nurses being predominantly females hold them back,” Justice said. “They’ll make that decision based on how bad they want it.”

Sherwood said female students should choose engineering to prove to themselves that they can do it, as well as to meet other like-minded women who find their strengths in science and math. 

“The more women that get into [engineering],” Sherwood said. “The more support that you’ll have from people in your own gender.”