Certain Classes at Andover Consistently Feature Gender Imbalance

The following piece is the first of a three-part feature about gender on campus.

Andover’s student body is divided nearly evenly between boys and girls–there are 555 males to 551 females–yet gender imbalances sometimes arise in the classroom composition.

Economics is a course that routinely features a gender imbalance in class enrollment and retention, according to Christopher Shaw, Instructor and Chair in History and Social Science and economics professor.

Shaw said, “On an ongoing basis, enrollment by girls has been a concern only because we’ve never been near the 50-50 gender ratio that one would expect and hope for in a 50-50 school.”

At present there are a total of 50 males and 23 females across all sections of Economics offered, according to Deborah Olander, Scheduling Officer.

Beyond enrollment gender imbalance, Shaw also noted the poor “retention” of girls in the two-term economics sequence. He has observed that female students enrolled in the HIST-SS520 course, “Economics I: Macroeconomics and the Global Consumer,” often choose not to continue to take HIST-SS521, “Economics II: Microeconomics and the Developing World.”

“Some of our strongest girls in [economics] have opted not to continue with the sequence,” he said.

Though Shaw is not certain of the particular reason for low female enrollment, he believes that female students may feel intimidated by more vocal male students because of the large gender disparity in economics classes, which leads them to drop the class after the first term.

Shaw said, “I do think it is this sort of cowboy mentality that sometime reins in an [economics] classroom. I think that boys more often than girls have grown up in families that are very comfortable talking about these topics, who raise it all the time.”

“It may be the case that boys have been encouraged to test their mettle at the dinner table, so they’re just naturally more comfortable talking about this,” he continued.

According to Abigail Burman ‘12, who took economics in the fall, only a quarter of the students in her 16 person class were female.

“The solution I’ve heard from a lot of people [to get more girls to take Economics] is that we just need to get guys to calm down more,” Burman said. “I would say exactly the opposite. I think the message needs to be, ‘Girls it’s time to speak up. And yes, you are allowed to be really forceful and defend your opinions.’”

She said, “Growing up… a message that a lot of girls get is that you can’t be loud and you’re really supposed to sit and smile. I think a really big job for PA is undoing that message.”

Last week, Women’s Forum hosted a discussion on female leadership and gender distribution in class enrollment at Andover with Jane Fried, Director of Admissions, and Jess Frye ‘09.

Reflecting on the discussion, Kate Chaviano ‘12, Co-Head of Women’s Forum, said that female students often feel greater pressure in class discussions due to their fewer numbers.

“I think a combination of being intimidated and wanting to succeed makes girls sometimes think [that makes taking Economics] not a viable option, whereas guys kind of rise to the challenge more if that’s already their forte,” said Chaviano.

“It felt as though because there were less girls, there was more pressure for them to be right and to be on top of their game versus males.”

Some girls may also shy away from enrolling in Economics because the subject is already a male-dominated profession.

Shaw said, “I think this [male-heaviness] is a phenomenon that is true in the profession as well [as the course]. This is not unique to high schools nor is it unique to Andover.”

Shaw noted that there are more male economists than female economists, despite there being “plenty of top-notch leading female economists” in the field.

Shaw said, “[The gender imbalance] is something that we worry about because I think our girls do well. They feel welcomed, at least by the teacher. They understand the material. It concerns me in the biggest of pictures because I don’t want to be a school that favors boys in a particular discipline, at least with respect to enrollment.”

Chaviano said, “Girls can perform just as well if not better in those classes. It’s really a matter of girls not being intimidated by the fact that [economics] tends to be male-heavy or just at Andover. This is something that you can be capable of learning and being able to do well in class.”

To counter this enrollment and retention problem, Shaw said that the Economics department has looked to hire female instructors and highlight the work of female economists in order to give budding female economists role models.

He said, “We’re always on the lookout to hire new talent that is female that will be in the classroom. I have always made a point of highlighting the work of women in economic history and in current literature… and there are lots of great women to point to.”

“My sense is that the real work we need to do is in that classroom dynamic, and that’s delicate.”