Where the Boys Are
by Marcia Goodrich
Shh. Don't tell.
What's the flirty little secret? For many female students at Michigan Tech, it's great being a girl.
It's not that women come to the University trolling for a husband. Far from it. By standard measures of academic achievement, ambition, and discipline, they outshine the men even at Tech, where smart guys abound.
But having a double-X chromosome yields certain perks at a school where men outnumber women three to one.
Those numbers place Tech among a dwindling minority of male-majority schools. Since the 1980s, more women than men have enrolled in US colleges, tipping the odds for romance in the guys' favor. While Michigan Tech has way more female students than it did in 1960 (when only one student in twenty-two was female and they bused women in for the Winter Carnival Sno-Ball), many girls still enjoy the privileges associated with being a sought-after and rare commodity.
"I've had several boyfriends and am now in a relationship," says Jessica, a communication and culture studies major who graduated in May. "But I don't think women are coming here for the M-R-S degree. People come here for the outdoors and for a great education. And there are plenty of good guys here."
"It's funny when you go to other campuses," she says. "My friends have their hair done, heels, full makeup . . . I can't imagine that; just getting up to go to class is hard enough. And wearing heels in the snow?"
Several other young women talked about the University's gender imbalance over lunch in the Wadsworth Hall dining area. They agreed that minority status has its compensations.
Getting dolled up is optional. Sweats, jeans, and T-shirts are the uniform of the day, every day. "It's easier to be yourself here," said Jen. "The only reason I get dressed up is for sorority things, for the other girls."
"On Fridays I look cute," promises Cassie.
The men aren't exactly bucking for the cover of , either. That's partly due to the nature of Tech, where style usually takes a backseat to substance. Anyway, say the women, the guys make up for it in manners. "We never open doors for ourselves," said Cassie.
"We all have to have some degree of nerdiness to come here," says Janet. "Neither gender tries to impress the other, so our relationships go past all that and are more about personality and nerdy quirks. I think this helps us build lasting friendships."
Horror stories were absent; none of the women in this small sample reported being discriminated against or harassed because of their gender. But sometimes they feel as if they are peeking in the window of the boys' clubhouse. Jen was once in a class where she was the only woman. "All the guys were really good friends with each other," she says. "They were very competitive, and I felt I got lost." It took a perfect score on an assignment for her to get noticed.
Michigan Tech has been laboring hard to attract more female students, in part to avoid such skewed situations. But when asked if they'd like to see more women at the University, these four cast sidelong glances at one other and replied in one voice that they like the current odds just fine.
"I wouldn't want to pack the campus with women who don't really want to be here for the education," Jen says. "But if you also want a successful husband and a good guy, come here."
Lonely girls: Overcoming the geek factor
While many female students at Michigan Tech are happy with the status quo, their outlook may be driven in part by their major. Women in departments that enroll very few females sometimes wish they had more company.
Computer science senior Ashley is accustomed to being a minority of one. "There are a lot of classes where I'm the only girl, but I don't notice it much anymore," she says. "I've gotten so used to it."
Of the 229 students majoring in computer science in spring 2009, only seventeen were female, or 7 percent. When the ratio gets that out of whack, the women face special challenges. Chief among them is that there's no one to talk to.
"I'm not one of the boys," says Ashley. "I deal with stress by discussing it, and that's not what guys do." To fill the void, she recently joined Women in Computer Sciences, a small but congenial group of female students majoring in computer science, computer engineering, and related fields. "I wish I'd joined it earlier," she says. "I can talk about feelings with them, and they understand what I'm saying."
It wasn't always like this, according to Linda Ott, chair of the computer science department. Back in the early 1980s, more than a third of the students attracted to the alluring new field of computing were young women.
But by the end of the decade the boys were ascendant. Ott traces the shift to the appearance of computers in high school classrooms, an example of benign intentions gone awry. "I think that the guys took them over and created this geeky, gaming culture that's permeated computer science," she says. "We've struggled with that image ever since."
The super-nerd stereotype can also mislead guys, who are sometimes shocked, shocked to discover that computer science is lots harder than playing video games. Many get discouraged and leave the program.
Women drop out, too, but usually for other reasons. "If we get three new female majors or less, it's hard to keep them," says Ott. "They can be doing fine in class, but they run into guys in the labs who are muttering these three-letter acronyms, and they feel in over their head. It's much harder to have a sense of belonging when almost everyone else looks and acts differently."
Ashley thinks computer science (along with other male-dominated disciplines like mechanical and electrical engineering) struggles against the myth that it isn't a helping profession, like medicine or biology. "And that's not true," she says. "CS is in every aspect of our lives. I don't see how people could think its not helping people."
Though she would welcome a few more peers to commiserate with, Ashley is now blooming where she planted herself. "I have an extra feeling of achievement, knowing that I've gotten through something that other girls don't even try to do."
What the guys think
Males applying to Tech sometimes worry that they'll never find a girlfriend, a problem they can remedy by taking some initiative and getting involved in female-friendly activities. One mechanical engineering major suggests working in the Chemistry Learning Center. "If you are tutoring them, they have to sit with you for an hour each week," he says. Besides, he said, the shortage of females "helps with the studying."
Indeed, the effort required to succeed at Michigan Tech often trumps hormonal imperatives.
"The guys are focusing on college, getting their degree, and starting a career too," says Beth Wagner, assistant vice president for student life. "And many of the men are comfortable in an all-male environment.
That way, they don't have to negotiate relationships; I've heard them say it's one less thing they have to deal with."
"It is less stressful," says Kenny. "I'm not gonna care so much what I look like. I could go to class in my pajamas."
Resident assistant Ben sometimes wishes guys would care a little bit more about appearances. He oversees the computer science learning community in the Wadsworth residence hall; the group is theoretically co-ed, but women are outnumbered fourteen to one. It highlights a maturity issue, he says. "Wandering around the hall in boxers isn't appropriate."
There are some perks for the guys in the residence halls, who don't have to flip a coin to watch Hockey Night in Canada. As for romance, attitudes among Ben's male charges cover the ballpark. "There are definitely guys looking for a girlfriend, and there are definitely guys looking for a fling," he says. "And there are guys that aren't thinking about it."
Ben would like to see more women at Tech. They are a civilizing influence; even guys don't want to see other guys walking around in their underpants. "And I hear it from my residents. They say it's so nice having girls down the hall."
"It would smell better if there were more women," says Deryk, a student living in Wadsworth Hall. "If everyone thought a little more about hygiene, it would be good for me, too."
Deryk is lunching with friends in the Wadsworth Hall dining area. They are discussing the male-female ratio, albeit with some reluctance. "I only notice it when people mention it," says Divam, casting a baleful look at the interviewer.
"[Women] always seem to be around," says Ryan. "It really doesn't matter, because we are all friends."
That culture of acceptance cuts across the gender divide and is one of the best things about the University, says new graduate Jessica. "We are all different, and we take the time to get to know each other, instead of judging each other. I think that's what makes Michigan Tech so nice and homey; we're not as affected by the mainstream culture as other schools. What matters most for us is our education."
Jen agrees, and asks a question most any girl could relate to: "I came here because Michigan Tech has the best program in the state," she says, "but if I leave here with a degree and a guy, what's wrong with that?"
Michigan Tech average ACT composite by gender
Michigan Tech graduation rates (percent) by gender