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Back to the roots? Do students in gender-atypical subjects use their change of subject to make a more gender-typical choice?

Universität Konstanz, Deutschland

Previous research has shown that students in gender-atypical subjects are more at risk to change their original subject than students in gender-typical ones. While these studies try to explain students’ decision of switching to another subject, they do not take their further educational path after subject change into account. I aim at closing this research gap by asking whether students who decided for a gender-atypical or gender-balanced subject are more at risk to switch to a gender-typical one after subject change than to stay in a subject with a similar gender-composition as their originally chosen subject. If this would be the case, subject changes may increase the prevalent gender segregation in higher education. I try to explain students’ second subject choice with a rational choice framework by assuming that students try to find a better match between their own occupational interests or career goals and the new subject than they had within their originally chosen one.

According to Holland’s theory of making vocational choices (1997) students should switch to a male-dominated subject if they have high realistic or investigative interests, whereas students with high artistic or social interests should switch to a female-dominated programme. Moreover, according to the theory of gender status beliefs (Ridgeway, 2001) and the theory of compensating differentials (e.g. Filer, 1985), male-dominated subjects should better meet the career goals of having a high income and good chances to move up, while female-dominated subjects promise more flexible working hours and doing useful work for society. I assume that students who decided for a gender-atypical or gender-balanced subject have an additional burden by not following gender stereotypes and should therefore be more strongly oriented towards gender-typical occupational interests and career goals when switching their subject.

The empirical analyses are based on data from the German National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), starting cohort 5, following first-year students in 2010/11 during their first five years of higher education. Based on multinomial logistic regression models I compare the gender compositions within subjects before and after subject change. Subjects with more than 70 percent of male or female students are considered to be male- or female-dominated ones, everything in between as gender-balanced subjects.

The results show that in particular men in female-dominated subjects leave the gender-atypical field, but they most frequently stay in gender-balanced fields after subject changes. Whereas women in male-dominated subjects most frequently stay in those programmes, those in a gender-balanced field often switch to a female-dominated one.

I conclude that indeed students who originally decided for a gender-atypical or gender-balanced subject are more likely to follow their gender-typical occupational interests after subject change: men leave gender-atypical fields due to high realistic and investigative interests, and women, on the other hand, follow social interests when leaving a gender-atypical field of study. The students’ career goals only show a limited explanation for the students’ further educational paths.

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  • J. Meyer

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