• August 31, 2015

Men and Women Differ in How They Decide to Study Abroad, Study Finds

Women appear to be much more likely than men to choose to study abroad because of significant gender-based differences in how students are influenced by their backgrounds, academic environments, and social interactions, according to research results being presented here this week as part of the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

The findings suggest that advocates of study-abroad programs "need to craft targeted marketing strategies that recognize and account for key differences between women and men," says a paper summarizing the results of a study by three researchers at the University of Iowa.

"While intent to study abroad among women seems to be affected by influential authority figures and educational contexts," the paper says, "intent to study abroad among men seems to be primarily shaped by emerging personal values, experiences, and peer influence."

The key question the study sought to tackle was why women are almost twice as likely as men to embark on foreign study. Although the gender gap is sometimes assumed to simply reflect the preponderance of women in the fine arts, foreign languages, and other humanities majors heavily represented in foreign-study programs, the reality is that it exists even in male-dominated majors such as engineering and the hard sciences.

Mark Salisbury, a research assistant at Iowa's Center for Research on Undergraduate Education, and Michael B. Paulsen and Ernest T. Pascarella, both professors of higher education there, based their analysis on data about some 2,800 students at 19 four-year and two-year colleges and universities participating in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. The students were surveyed by the Wabash-study researchers shortly after entering college as freshmen in the fall of 2006 and were asked about their intent to study abroad when surveyed again in the spring of 2007.

In crunching the survey data to determine what had influenced students' decisions to study abroad, the researchers found marked differences in how the different genders responded to different forces in their lives.

Having highly educated parents appeared to make women more likely to intend to study abroad, but it did not have any effect on men's intentions, reflecting the broader observation among researchers that women are more likely to make college-going decisions based on their parents' preferences.

Similarly, taking classes that focus on human diversity and differences appeared to leave women more likely to intend to study abroad but did not have an impact on men, suggesting that, just as women are more influenced by their parents than are men, they may be more influenced by faculty members or, at least, the courses that faculty members teach.

The Iowa researchers also found that:

  • The more men interacted with their peers, the less likely they were to intend to study abroad. Peer interactions did not have such an impact on women.
  • Women, but not men, who attended regional institutions or community colleges were less likely than those attending liberal-arts colleges to intend to study abroad. The researchers speculated that perhaps "something about the educational culture at regional institutions and community colleges is negatively affecting women's intent to study abroad," or that perhaps "women attending these institutions are impacted by additional obligations such as family or parenting responsibilities that preclude the possibility of studying abroad."
  • Being undecided on a major appeared to leave men substantially more likely to choose to study abroad but not to have any significant impact on women.
  • In some cases, culture and gender appeared to interact. Asian-American men, but not Asian-American women, were significantly less likely than white students to intend to study abroad. And although Hispanic men and white men were equally likely to intend to study abroad, Hispanic women were significantly more likely to intend to study abroad than were white women.


1. jffoster - November 06, 2009 at 02:21 pm

Don't you mean "signigicant SEX based differences.."

2. pschmidt - November 06, 2009 at 02:37 pm

A good question, jffoster. "Gender" is the term the researchers used.--Peter Schmidt

3. rsmulcahy - November 06, 2009 at 04:21 pm

No, these aren't sex based differences. I believe the researchers used the correct term in their study. Unless you are saying that differences in how men and women make study abroad decisions can be traced to specific genes on the X or Y chromosome then gender is the correct term. And I would hope that is not what you believe. Gender is the socially/culturally constructed ideas of what normative behaviors should be exhibited by males and females. Doesn't mean any individual male or female internalizes those norms however. But it is clear to me that these difference in study abroad decisions have far more to do with environment/enculturation than they do with genetics.

4. unree - November 06, 2009 at 09:59 pm

Gender rather than sex weighing in here: Women might be more likely to embrace the risks of study abroad because they have less to lose (prestige, indulgence, mom doing their laundry, significant other doing emotional work) by leaving home temporarily. Kind of like draw poker, where you hold on to good cards but are willing to take a chance on new cards when your hand isn't so good. Women also might rationally conclude that they need to work harder, give up more comfort, and take more chances to succeed.

5. madamesmartypants - November 06, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Women tend to take up careers that are, in some senses, not practical: poorly compensated, time consuming, emotionally draining and/or difficult work (childcare, elder care, social work, public health). Yet these are also the types of jobs that are the most rewarding on a personal level. Perhaps studying abroad is similar: usually expensive, time consuming, emotionally draining and/or difficult, but personally rewarding.

Women may also be acting rationally in the sense that they realize that if they are ever to go to a foreign country, they need to do it while they're young, because at some point they may want to have kids. This may not be as big of a concern for men, who neither need to be physically present at certain periods of a child's life (breastfeeding, for example), nor have to deal with a strong social expectation that mommy should stay with the kids at all times (as opposed to, say, spend six months in France while daddy picks up the slack).

6. 22074041 - November 07, 2009 at 09:24 am

Interesting study, this is. Would be good to tease out factors that correlate with each gender's choice and "motives." Results could help develop strategies for expanding male participation.

At least two motives one can guess at for females would be the one mentioned by "madamesmartypants" above: that they know it's "now or never." Many women feel a time clock ticking with the message: "do it now" before you have children. (That's what motivated me to earn a Ph.D. right out of college in the early 1960s...while I could; and, as part of that, to spend two years abroad.)

The second possible motive is that some women have seen studies indicating that women need more on their resumes than men for the same kind of professions. So they may be adding this experience to have an additional advantage (over men) in initial hiring (where, again, with the same resume, the man is more likely to be hired).

This of course is the opposite of being less practical (as Ms.M. suggests), but rather more practical - in both arguments above.

But we won't know without the data (which may be in the actual report).

7. 11269856 - November 07, 2009 at 03:29 pm

No one has mentioned one very important factor: women are by far better at learning foreign languages than men. They are more able to listen, imitate, engage socially with different people, and risk embarrassing themselves, all essential elements of studying a foreign language, and hence studying abroad.

8. renacg334 - November 07, 2009 at 06:56 pm

Shall we assume that the authors controlled for the fact that men are more likely to study engineering, a field which doesn't allow a lot of flexibility in scheduling or taking a semester away?

9. 22074041 - November 07, 2009 at 09:54 pm

The article indicates that they did control for different majors. Because otherwise the traditional reasoning was that women are more apt to be in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, subjects that lend themselves to experiencing cultures abroad, and men weighted toward STEM subjects, with lesser cultural components... But one would want to see the data to be sure that selections of different majors did not account for gender difference in study abroad: that's been known for years.

And a good point about languages - although in my experience those who use languages in careers (Foreign Service, Corporations, military) have traditionally tended to be more male than female (despite the fact that women are more facile in foreign language study).

10. mccum - November 08, 2009 at 08:02 pm

I am uncomfortable with the non sequiturs in these researchers' reasoning which point to (possibly unconscious) gender bias. Sadly, women's strengths--their openness, initiative, and global citizenship--are recast by these researchers as weaknesses. For example, having highly educated parents is not the same as being influenced by parents. Nor is taking a class on diversity the same as being influenced by a professor or the course.
According to the AAUW, girls and women are doing better
in education than they were while boys and men are staying the same. Conclusions that value women could have as easily been drawn from these researchers' data as their sexist inferences.

Clearly, the study is flawed. I would suspect that class is a more important factor than gender in influencing students' study abroad decisions. And results from a study on class could yield tangible benefits for schools that want to improve students' access to travel abroad.

11. 22074041 - November 09, 2009 at 12:59 pm

If "class" were an issue, then men and women would be in equal numbers (more or less) in each "class." However, "class" as a factor in choosing whether or not to study abroad (including cultural/social expectations of different groups) could be interesting to see - and may be valuable data for recruitment.

And although it seems "intuitive" that the cost of study abroad, or of being away for a period, is a factor, it would be useful to see that issue teased out. Sometimes programs that offer financial support for study abroad are not fully spoken for.

In other words: it would be interesting to know not only why some people study abroad, but why others don't. (Anecdotally we hear of family commitments, need to work to support self, boyfriend/girlfriend issues, and such - but do we know?)

And if the reasons for study abroad may differ for male and female students (possibly) - then might the obstacles to study abroad differ as well? Perhaps by gender, "class," nature of institution in which people study, part of America they're in, personal wealth, major subjects, etc...?

12. 11144703 - November 11, 2009 at 11:26 am

Surely there must be "something about the educational culture at regional institutions and community colleges [that] is negatively affecting" Asian-America men's intent to study abroad. However, I won't waste time waiting for those factors to be examined since Asian-American men (and women), despite their monumentally positive influence in the hard sciences, have been effectively erased by those who write about academe. Why? Because they're actually an embarrassment to those writers on the Left who dominate writing about the academy. Why an embarrassment? Guess...

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