What Works: Chapter 11, Differences in the Way Men and Women Experience College

A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men

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Differences in the Way Men and Women Experience College 
By Dr. Linda Sax

College is understood as a critical time for young men and women to experience the transition to adulthood through opportunities for learning and involvement. The assumption is that college will enable students to expand their knowledge base while also refining their interests in an attempt to figure out how they want to live their lives and pursue their vocations. Years of research have documented the many effective ways that colleges can facilitate students' development toward these longer-term goals. We know that, in general, healthy development stems from students' exposure to an interesting, challenging, and engaging curriculum involvement in extracurricular opportunities; and through the development of meaningful relationships with faculty and peers.

The question posed for this essay is whether these experiences differ for men and women in college. This is an important question because the vast majority of research on the impact of college focuses on students in the aggregate, without much consideration of how the dynamics of the college experience may depend on key factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. These and other demographic characteristics impact much about our lives, so it stands to reason that they will influence how students experience college.

The role of gender in shaping the college experience has been a central focus of my research for over two decades. Through longitudinal studies of student characteristics and experiences conducted nationwide by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute,I explore how women and men differ from each other when they enter college, and then, once accounting for these initial differences, examine whether the impact of college differs for the two sexes.

At the point of college entry, we find significant gender differences across a variety of attributes. First, women outnumber men on college campuses, constituting 57 percent of enrollments nationwide, though they remain sorely underrepresented in certain fields such as engineering and computer science. Further, compared to men, women begin their freshman year with a greater propensity for positive engagement in academics, clubs, and the larger community, but tend to suffer from lower academic self-confidence and higher levels of stress related to their personal, academic, and financial responsibilities. Men stand to benefit from higher levels of academic self-assuredness as well as greater commitment to sports and exercise. However, men's propensity to become engaged in productive academic habits or campus clubs and organizations is hindered by the amount of time they devote to a range of "leisure" activities, including partying, watching television, and playing video games.

Naturally, such gender differences stand to shape the ways in which men and women experience college. Using data on over 17,000 undergraduates nationwide, my research examines how several dozen college environments and experiences contribute to students' academic achievement, personality and identity, and political and social values. Of the several hundred significant effects of college that are measured, nearly three-quarters are different for women and men.

One of the more interesting gender differences relates to students' interactions with faculty. Women are more likely than men to report receiving both academic and emotional support from their faculty (partly because they are more likely to seek out such support). Further, the consequences of these interactions also differ by gender. For example, women's sense of self-esteem is more strongly tied to the nature of their faculty interactions, with the evidence suggesting that positive, supportive, and uncritical interactions are especially effective at enhancing women's academic motivation and self-confidence. For male students, however, faculty play a unique role in promoting their interest in broader political and societal issues.

Another noteworthy gender differential relates to academic engagement. Even though women enter college having spent more time than men doing homework and pursuing out-of-class academic opportunities, the benefits of academic engagement in college appear to be greater for men. In particular, as men devote more time to studying and preparing for class, they reap even greater benefits than do women in terms of their grades, academic confidence, critical thinking skills and achievement motivation. Further, the more time men devote to academics, the greater interest they develop in political and social issues affecting the world around them; this does not occur to the same extent for women. The bottom line is that while academic engagement is important to the success of both genders, in college it has greater impact on men.

Another interesting area of difference is how women and men react to experiences with diversity. The research suggests that exposure to diversity in the form of courses, workshops, or social interactions is especially eye-opening for male students and has a more salient effect on their political attitudes and commitment to activism.

These and the many other examples of gender differences have important implications for campus practice, which I discuss in detail in The Gender Gap in College. Such differences in the impact of college underscore the importance of remembering that different groups of students (whether defined by gender, race/ethnicity or, any number of characteristics) may react to college in different ways. Campus practitioners, faculty, and administrators ought to keep such differences in mind when designing and implementing programs and services so that each group of students stands to achieve maximum benefit from their college experience.


Linda Sax (B.A. University of California, Berkeley; Ph.D. University of California, Los Angeles) is a professor at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles The author of more than 70 publications, including The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Development Potential of Women and Men, she is the recipient of the 2005 Scholar-in-Residence Award from the American Association of University Women.

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