Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On Why Men Don't Study Abroad

Sure, many men do take advantage of study abroad opportunities, but not enough. I have been debating with folks this semester why men don't like to study abroad, and what it would take to get more of them overseas.

Here are some of the reasons that I have heard for why men don't study abroad:

(1) Men are not mature enough. [The coordinator of study abroad programs at my school has started targeting junior men and trying to get them abroad by their Senior year].

(2) Men are not independent enough. [True example from a International Education Administrator from Denmark. A young man came over to Copenhagen to study for a semester and got lost on the first day of classes. He called his mother from downtown Copenhagen, who then called the office of the school (while he was on the other line) to ask for directions to his first class for her son. Second example: a colleague of mine led the Lancaster study abroad semester and told of how a young man brought a huge duffel bag full of food that his mother packed, fearing he would not find adequate nutrients in England].

(3) The courses offered by study abroad programs are too liberal artsy--they are "art history" or "literature" courses, not math, science or engineering courses that more likely appeal to men.

If (2) is largely responsible for why men don't study abroad, then we have a very difficult problem on our hands. What I want to know is if men are coddled by their mothers because (1) or because of entrenched gender roles. Why doesn't the mother simply tell her son to get a map, ask directions, or go to the office to ask for directions about where his class is?

Are men really incapable of this kind of problem-solving? If so, then how do they end up in all the "power positions" in culture?

My money is on the ways in which mothers participate in socializing the male gender role, i.e. not encouraging them to ask directions lest they look weak and not in command (although this pose oddly depends up female labor doing this work so as to allow a man to appear in control).

My mother used to confess to me that she never thought she needed to coddle me or help me, but always felt compelled to do so for my brother because of a deep sense that men are more fragile. I find this intuition, coming from a mother, so interesting. It is counter-intuitive. You would think, given the cultural messages that women are incompetent, that mothers were far more guilty of coddling their daughters, but instead they infantilize their sons.

And yet, infantilizing sons teaches them that women are there to take care of all the practical details of their lives: directions, food, home--so that they can do real work. Infantilizing daughters, when it occurs in the media (though oddly not at home) gives the impression that women are untrustworthy, wholly dependent, and not good problem solvers.


P.S. (3) bugs me as an explanation for why men don't study abroad. I am sure you can figure out why.

UPDATE: Most of the commentors thus far have rightly pointed out that I have shown no data that substantiates the core claim here: that there is a gender gap in study abroad programs. To correct that, here is a dissertation on the issue. I wrongly assumed that this trend in higher ed was widely known. Here is an older piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education.