The Issue of College Major Stereotyping
It was a pretty average Tuesday morning — normal lecture, quiet discussions, and a cold classroom. The monotonous voice of our literature professor nearly soothed us to sleep. While the initial topic being discussed was the role of the “artist,” what happened next sparked a real conversation. A student announced her feelings in regard to her creativity, relating back to the genius writer Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. “I hate when people assume I’m going into teaching after telling them I’m an English major,” she remarked. This statement struck me at my core. Why do people always assume that our goal is to teach? And how did this rationale arise? Like Aschenbach, most of us feel stigmatized for our desire to create.
During my sophomore year, I made the switch from being a STEM student to a Liberal Arts student. My friends praised my decision, one of them stating that I didn’t “fit in” with my previous major. However, studying English has had its drawbacks. My family has expressed discomfort with this change. “Are you sure you want to switch? You won’t be making as much money,” my mom maintained. Maybe she was right. I knew that getting an English degree would present me with fewer opportunities and financial instability. Majoring in STEM is arguably more “practical” due to the technological age we are immersed in. But akin to Liberal Arts students, STEM majors — and others — are also victims of stereotypes.
The magnitude of these common beliefs became widely detectable in early 2019 when a feud transpired on Twitter between Liberal Arts and STEM majors. Although thousands of tweets erupted on my newsfeed and the argument was a trending topic, this has been an ongoing debate for years. One side argues that Art degrees are useless. The other side contends that individuals in STEM fields lack essential critical thinking and communication skills. Twitter user @mberwebb posted, “Good luck to the STEM majors who hate on Liberal Arts degrees but have 2.0 GPAs and no social skills.” Some of these tweets were even humorous, regardless of the widespread angst. Here are just a few:
Besides the common generalizations associated with where students will be heading in life in terms of success and financial stability, there are also the blatant physical stereotypes that we see in the movies. For example, many believe that Art majors have a natural-born talent — in reality, their artistic skills take years of practice to develop. English majors are seen as perfect spellers, which is far from reality. Math majors are associated with the geeky nerd archetype. Computer Science is typically considered a male-dominated field, while Education is often feminized. And the list goes on.
Most of these stereotypes stem from both elements of popular culture and social ideologies formed by society itself. According to a sociological journal titled Trends in Cognitive Science, “forming conceptually rich social categories helps people navigate the complex social world by allowing them to reason about others’ likely thoughts, beliefs, actions, and interactions as guided by group membership. Yet, social categorization often has nefarious consequences.” Like any staple classification found in society — whether it be class, gender, or race — stereotypes pertaining to college majors is just a partial reflection of the constructive nature of humans, as we have a natural tendency to place others in defined categories.
Comparing something as simplistic as college majors to something as trivial as gender seems almost ridiculous. However, the issue of gender often coincides with how students view each other in relation to their majors. But because of our innate desire to generalize individuals by who or what they associate themselves with, it’s worth investigating to see if university students truly practice this method of social categorization with their peers and even themselves.
To get this information, I conducted a small survey with a sample of 50 students, mainly but not limited to those who attend the University of New Orleans. Basic information was recorded, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and the major/college the surveyors belong to. These individuals ranged from ages 18 to 24, with diverse career paths and backgrounds. The respondents were widely female, making up 68 percent of the results. In addition, the survey recorded the students’ own perceptions of major stereotyping, as well as how they viewed practicality before and after choosing their majors.
Let’s get the least shocking facts out of the way: the percentage of men in STEM was far higher than women, regardless of the overwhelming majority of women who responded to the survey. It was a bit upsetting to interpret these results, considering how STEM is often perceived as a male-dominated field. According to the Institution of Research and Development Management at the University of New Orleans, this statistic is, unfortunately, true in regard to Engineering majors. In the fall of 2018, student enrollment data confirms that 82 percent of men dominate this major, with women only comprising 18 percent of the College of Engineering.
There is hope, however. Looking at the survey responses, I was ecstatic to find that there was an equal amount of women in both STEM and Liberal Arts. As a former STEM major, I believe that women will slowly but surely, dominate this field. Many rightfully claim that this statistic does not discourage them but rather makes them stronger. A female Engineering major wrote, “I’ve heard people say that Engineering is not meant for girls, which I am here to prove them wrong.”
While women in STEM often feel that they are stereotyped for their gender, men have seen or also felt these impacts in other ways. A math major passionately stated, “[We are seen as anti-social], not the most attractive, a male-dominated field, and rather nerdy. People expect math majors to be teachers. Also, 9 [times out of] 10, people always ask ‘why’ with a level of disgust equivalent to someone who committed a heinous crime whenever you tell them you’re a math major. Additionally, certain races are perceived as being better at math than others.” Not only does being a STEM major generally entail your gender, but also your ethnicity — and even your personality? These perceived stereotypes can be verified through other responses I read.
Another aspect of stereotyping that is highly scrutinized is practicality. Why do people pick their major? For practical reasons or for personal reasons? An interesting finding conducted from the survey was that the majority of STEM students did not pick their major for practicality and financial purposes, unlike several Liberal Arts and Business majors. In fact, 59 percent of STEM individuals did so to fulfill their passion, while only 50 percent of Liberal Arts majors responded with the same answer. Surprising, right? In contrast, the majority of Business majors rated practicality on a high scale and agreed that success is defined by garnering income. Not as surprising as most would believe.
The physical stereotypes written by the respondents about themselves and other majors definitely reflect the common perceptions we see in the larger culture. In addition to women in STEM, those in Liberal Arts fields have also stated that they feel outcasted for their gender. One female student wrote that the general stereotype of Film majors is “White, male, poor, struggling, [and] liberal.” Another student in this field explained this phenomenon further in-depth:
“A lot of film majors are pompous white boys. The film industry itself doesn’t even respect film majors because they think they’re going to walk in and act like they know everything. The movie industry was always something you learned through experience/apprenticeship, so film majors are often too entitled and know it all-y for everyone, including film professionals.”
I won’t lie, I laughed at this comment. Of course, there was an abundance of comments stating that those in Liberal Arts fields are not taken as seriously. Many students also associated these individuals with being very progressive, painting Liberal Arts as “hipsters.” A sociology major stated that “performing arts majors are [viewed as] drug addicts.” I happened to find this statement even more humorous than the previous one.
The applicants were then tasked to respond with stereotypes they had heard about other majors. A Pre-Nursing major has heard that “all English majors are hopeless.” According to a Biology major, “Business majors are greedy. Education majors are obnoxious and dingy. Liberal Arts is a useless major.” An IDS major wrote, “Engineering majors are all white and international dudes.” These points have definitely been heard — numerous times and on several occasions.
What is the conclusion? Apart from gender being the most significant driving force in stereotyping, what I have learned from this process is this: College majors are complex. People are complex. Not all STEM majors are money hungry and anti-social. Not all Liberal Arts majors are carefree hippies with zero ambition. While individuals from this survey have reinforced the same generalizations we are often exposed to in pop culture, these students also have their own aspirations in life. They have unique ideas of practicality and have varying definitions of success. Their journeys are personal ones and should be regarded as such.
My experience with this survey has opened my eyes to a wide range of perspectives — both debunking and reinforcing these widely held beliefs. Stereotypes will never go away. They are ingrained in our society and help humans make sense of the world around them. Nevertheless, they are only accusations that are based on established ideologies.
The most important lesson of them all? Stereotypes do not define the person, but rather, the person can define the stereotype if they let themselves. And that is the beauty of defiance and self-worth.
Institution of Research and Development Management at the University of New Orleans