Blogs > Cliopatria > Women Making Gains in College, But Not in History

Mar 10, 2009 12:39 pm

Women Making Gains in College, But Not in History

Women now comprise 55 percent of undergraduates and 60 percent of graduate students, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But a sample of over 500 schools from the latest Department of Education data shows that women are receiving only 40.3 percent of bachelors degrees in history. What is keeping large numbers of women from majoring in history?

If the overall proportion of women enrolled receives a ten percent boost in moving from undergraduate to graduate school, this is hardly the case for history. In a recent article in the AHA’s Perspectives, Rob Townsend reported that women received 40.8 percent of the doctorates awarded by history departments. So it seems that the barriers women face to majoring in history at the undergraduate level are still very much in play at the graduate level.

The 2007 October School Enrollment Supplement to the Current Population Survey of the Census Bureau shows that part of the answer lies in who makes it to graduate school. Hispanics comprise 15.1 percent of the U.S. population, but only 4.38 percent of graduate students in the U.S. Similarly, African Americans comprise 13.1 percent of the U.S. population, but only 6.72 percent of graduate students in the U.S. Within these two racial/ethnic groups, women comprise two thirds of those who are graduate students. If history graduate programs recruited more individuals from these underrepresented groups, this could increase the proportion of women studying history.

Another factor may be one that I have noticed anecdotally. When undergraduate women ask me about my major, and I tell them it is history, large numbers of them say history was their worst subject. When I ask why, they usually say that they weren't good at memorizing dates. But then they are usually quick to add that they enjoyed the stories. I wonder if this is commentary on how history is typically taught in our high schools. Are males socialized during high school into doing better at math, which then carries over into a perception that they are better than females at memorizing dates?

With a little more effort, the American Historical Association could help answer some of these questions. They could code the names in their Dissertation Directory by gender. This would give us a much better sense of how the proportion of ABD history students who are women is changing over time. They could use the Department of Education's IPEDS Dataset Cutting Tool (linked above) to identify colleges and universities where men and women tend to major in history at equal rates and then investigate the factors that cause this to happen. Conversely, the AHA could investigate schools where women are severely underrepresented among history majors and then examine the reasons for this disparity. Lastly, if our profession ever gets serious about vastly expanding our masters programs in history (which would help ease the job market crunch, by the way), the AHA could convene a task force to look into the barriers that undergraduate women face in choosing to major or go on in history.

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Maarja Krusten - 3/13/2009

Many thanks for posting a link to the report by the AHA Committee on Women Historians. As someone who faced the choice in the 1970s of going to work for the federal government or going the academic route as an historian, I read it with great interest. I have two comments, one related to job opportunities outside academe and one related to an issue raised in the AHA report.

I went the government route and am very glad I did. Although there aren't many permanent civil service positions, I did want to point out that federal history positions do offer women opportunities for history careers outside the academy. If you look at the duties listed by the federal Office of Personnel Management for 170-series historians, you can see that they largely involve research and writing.

Federal historians may serve mostly internal clients or a mix of internal and external clients. Unlike in the academy, federal historians largely focus on their core work assignments. So service commitments are not an issue to the extent they are in an academic environment. Moreover, you can take advantage of family-friendly federal leave policies, telework opportunities, and technological tools which may enable you to provide quick turnaround customer service 24/7 while off-site.

I live close enough to my place of employment that I can come in on a moment's notice, even on the weekend (rarely necessary) or while on vacation at home (I tend to take very long Christmas breaks -- last year I was home for a month). While I've occasionally spent personal time on work related projects, I've generally been very satisfied with work-life balance during my 36 years and counting of federal employment.

Among the challenges the AHA report on women describes are those related to style of discourse, including issues related to tone and personality. How much do academics focus on this? I have to wonder, is it something female academics mostly discuss amongst themselves? I haven't seen much discussion of it in academic blogs but have to admit, I only follow a few.

Jeremy Young at Progressive Historians has touched on the question of why there are more male bloggers than female bloggers. Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted pointed to differences in style of discourse in his very interesting essay ("Mr. Obama's Neighborhood") at

Here on HNN, I once referred to Myers Briggs typing and Deborah Tanen and others who discuss communications and personality types in a comment posted under a main page article. These issues crop up in workplaces which reward and value facilitative leaders as opposed to unilateral leaders. (See
for a discussion of the unilateral and facilitiative styles of leadership and their outcomes.) If you're going to work as an historian in a governmental setting, you're probably going to want to give some thought to faciltative leadership skills.

When I raised the question of communication styles, one of the other posters on HNN responded cordially and engaged me nicely on the subject. However, he pointed out that women were more likely to read about communications than men. I responded that some workplaces require officials to study business communications but it may be true that left on their own, more women read books such as Tanen's than do men. I don't know if there is any empirical data available on that -- has anyone ever analyzed that, either within an academic enviornment or outside?

I've rambled on longer than I intended, but your post was very interesting and really got me thinking!

Sterling Fluharty - 3/11/2009

Comparing history with quantum physics is quite a stretch. Why not compare the situation in history with some more similar disciplines? Women major in the other social sciences and humanities at a rate near or equal to their representation in the undergraduate student bodies. Yet for some reason they remain underrepresented in history. Check on this blog post for more information on that comparison.

I am flattered that you think so highly of my metaphor skills. But, alas, I cannot take the credit for leaky pipeline. That term has been around for probably decades. You should read this recent report of the AHA Committee on Women Historians to see how it is used these days. You will also find in the report a discussion of the kinds of discrimination that many women face in the field of history.

Les Baitzer - 3/11/2009

This is fun. I especially like the metaphors ... "leaky pipeline" is cute.

If it is acceptable, I'd like to include Ralph's comment above, to wit: "women do not become history majors in proportion to their representation as undergraduates."

Fine. That's exactly what I thought the data indicated.

So, all the teeth gnashing is because women may represent 70% of the undergraduates, yet only 40% of the history majors.

Is that the source of this angst? Are you serious?

I'm tempted to surf over to the Quantam Physics Blog and check in with them. Given that representation of women in that major is likely in the low single digits against an undergraduate representation of 70%, those guys must be contemplating mass suicide!

Forgive me for sounding smug, but if all you can manage is to look at some raw data and infer a "barrier," followed closely by the incredible statement that, "Of course it is men who chime in and claim there are no barriers." you have much more work to do.

If there is a secret cabal of old white guys that are covertly setting up "barriers" to women who really would love to major in history, I'll be the first to soak my torch in oil and join you in snuffing the bastards out of their hiding places.

Meanwhile, until you posit a strong case, I'll just watch as you continue to tilt at windmills.

Sterling Fluharty - 3/11/2009

This is so fun. Of course it is men who chime in and claim there are no barriers. Let me just suggest that the leaky pipeline for female graduate students and faculty in history probably starts sooner in their educational career then we had previously imagined.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/10/2009

What it fairly clearly indicates, barrier or no, is that women do not become history majors in proportion to their representation as undergraduates.

Les Baitzer - 3/10/2009

Perhaps I did misrepresent it Ralph, but I didn't attribute that to Fluharty; I said that's what *I'm* inclined to believe.

Perhaps I can restate it this way. If 40% of history majors are female, so be it!

And again, how on earth does that data imply any barrier?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/10/2009

Les, You need to read or, at least, represent the data more carefully. No one -- much less Fluharty -- has said that 40% of female undergraduates are interested in majoring in history. That is quite a different thing than saying that 40% of history majors are female.

Les Baitzer - 3/10/2009

When I first read your post I had precisely the same reaction as Mr. Stone wrote above; absent any evidence of "barriers," how can the data infer that barriers exist?

Now, as I read your reply to him, I'm inclined to believe that, regardless of the representation of females to the student body as a whole, around 40% of female undergraduates are interested in majoring in history.

So be it.

What manner of logic would allow that there should be statistical parity in the preference of college majors?

And, a better question might be this. How, after 40 years of spending billions of dollars to remove all manner of "barriers" for the protected classes in our society, could there possibly exist any such "barriers" in choosing a major subject today?

I'm tempted to believe you're tilting at windmills, Mr. Fluharty.

Sterling Fluharty - 3/10/2009

I could give you the names of about 70 colleges and universities where, on average, women comprise 72 percent of the undergraduate study body. And yet women comprise only 40 percent of the history bachelors recipients at those schools. Conversely, I could tell you about 40 colleges and universities where women comprise only 40 percent of the undergraduate study body. At those schools, only 41 percent of the history bachelors recipients are women. If the proportion of women enrolled as undergraduates at a college or university makes no difference in the proportion at that institution that major in history, then there must be some other factors at work. Presumably, if these factors were changed, the proportion of women majoring in history would increase. You might call these independent variables, but I call them barriers.

Dave Stone - 3/10/2009

In a couple of places, you wonder what the "barriers" are that prevent women from majoring in history.

But why assume barriers without evidence? It may simply be a matter of preferences. Where those preferences come from is in itself worthy of inquiry, but conceptualizing the issue as one of "barriers" from the beginning seems to me to prejudge the situation.