Gender Imbalance in the Classroom


Soomin Chun

“Women belong in the kitchen.”

Traditional norms have assigned the genders appropriate roles and characteristics in the past: education was no exception. Traditionally, males have been expected to study hard and get jobs while women have been assigned more domestic roles. As women were not the typical breadwinners of their families, parents often invested less into the education for their daughters, and rather focused on getting their sons to college. The differences in educational expectations often bred different expectations on their fields of study: women were not expected to endure analytical and rational areas of study, such as the systematic education associated with science, technology, engineering, and math subjects, referred to as STEM, and were rather expected to show talent in more emotional and creative art forms.

Some may argue that such sexism no longer exists in our society. However, in these contemporary times, many more men study the sciences while more women are studying the humanities and arts. Studies released by the US government’s Economic and Statistics Administration claim that although women account for half the workforce, less than 25% of the STEM industry is occupied by women. Multiple factors may account for this phenomenon, one of which is societal pressure that women face in gaining a STEM education.

“On my personal journey toward a career in medicine, there have been clear obstacles,” said Sohee Ahn (10), a student who aspires to become a doctor. “There are few female scientists whom I can look up to as role models, and many people around me are extremely surprised to see me pursuing medicine. They say, because science is [innately] too demanding for females and because women fall behind men in terms of logic, I should stick to subjects that ‘fit me.’ Also, because the path ahead of me is uncertain with few women role models, I sometimes feel discouraged, but I feel further determined to take advantage of the opportunities I have and pull through.”

Many girls in the modern day notice the same things as Sohee. In the Solvay Conference of 1927, a gathering of “the greatest scientific minds of the day,” only one out of the 29 featured scientists was female. To be sure, the disparity between men and women in the workforce has decreased extensively. However, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey of its 20 member states, almost four times as many boys were expected to be employed in computing and engineering than girls on average. Additional surveys by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that these results were not due to a lack of ability. Rather in a majority of countries, the number of 15-year-old girls at the top percentiles of PISA mathematics and science tests with knowledge application type questions either matched or outnumbered that of boys. If these numbers speak the truth, then why are girls discouraged to pursue careers in math and science?

First of all, girls do not feel comfortable “intruding” into a profession that is widely dominated by males. According the Science Daily Journal, Stanford University psychologist Mary Murphy explained that women are less likely to participate in science and engineering because women are a minority in these settings, and both men and women prefer a gender-balanced academic setting where ideas of both parties are more openly accepted.

“Most of my classes have had a balanced number of girls and boys in them since, in freshmen year, we don’t have many choices on what to take,” Sunhee Bae (9) said. “However, I am already worried about what courses to take next year because I have to think of both whether the subject would fit me and whether I would fit the subject. When I learn ‘softer’ subjects like art and humanities, there tends to be more girls so I feel more comfortable. Around guys, I can’t be myself and I feel pressured to prove myself.”

This imbalance of gender in classrooms is also evident at SIS. In AP Physics 1 this year, only 24% of students are female, but both female and male students do not differ much in performance according to the instructor. Brian Mellon, physics teacher, also surmises that the society’s positive view of males and positive view of females are different. In Korean society, the professions considered “masculine” and those considered “feminine” are clearly divided into two categories—eegwa and moongwa, basically translating into STEM and liberal arts courses, respectively. Students may be pressured to choose a category they excel at, based on their performance in science and math versus writing and history. The underlying assumptions regarding each category’s personality are so prevalent in everyday life that a conversation with family elders or a new classmate often begins casually with the ultimate question, “Are you eegwa or moongwa?”

“I feel like parents are too concerned about our future to the point that they are intrusive,” Jake Park (11) said. “Once you graduate from high school and leave the safety of the house, you must protect yourself in the real world, so parents really care and nag a lot about your studies. They want the best for you, and that sometimes makes it feel like even before birth, your path in life is predestined by the will of your parents, restricting choices in our lives, especially since what parents feel is the best choice for us is often based on society’s stereotypes.”

As much as Korean society values education and hard work, Korea has the highest salary gap between male and female workers in the world at a soaring 39%, according to the Maeil Business Newspaper. Only 55.6% of women in Korea participated in the economy in 2013, according to the IMF, and women make up only 1.7% of senior management positions. Gender inequality in the workplace leads to problems regarding the nation’s progress, as the STEM subjects are often perceived to contain “industries of the future.”
This phenomenon of a lack of women in STEM education is not just an issue in South Korea. Developed nations across the world have attempted to help cultivate women engineers, especially in countries that already have advanced engineering programs, and the gender disparities are seeing some gradual improvement. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the epitome of an eegwa university, specially offers programs such as the Women’s Technology Program (WTP) to “spark high school girls’ interest in the future study of engineering and computer science.” Other colleges and programs have followed its lead by providing similar opportunities for women to delve into STEM subjects, such as the Curie Academy from Cornell University. With such programs providing sparks to push girls to study the STEM fields, perhaps, in a future not too far from our time, women will be working in labs to cure cancer while the robots that they have programmed help them cook and clean while they are busy.