Being a woman in a male dominated major at a school with a large LDS population can be difficult. Although many of the male students won’t treat women any differently, there are some who will act threatened by or uncomfortable with women in these programs. It is not that uncommon for women to be told that they are “taking up the spot” of a potential breadwinner, or asked what in the world they are going to do with their major once they are a stay at home mom. Generally, the stereotypes of women in male dominated fields is that they are career oriented and thus are not interested in having a family. There is also an assumption that women in male dominated majors must be planning on using the major in a stereotypical female way by going into teaching or part-time work.
You would think that with the negative reactions towards women in stereotypical male fields, that LDS women would get a lot of social support for majoring in stereotypical female fields. As a former BYU Marriage, Family, and Human Development major, I can attest that this is not the case. My major was generally looked down upon by other BYU students. It was assumed that anyone in MFHD was not very smart, and was just biding her time in college until some RM swooped her up and started providing for her. Also, women in this major were thought to have no genuine passion or interest in their major and no ambition
From an academic standpoint, it baffles me that many BYU students thought that my major was something that BYU made up and thus was not a real discipline. If academia includes the study of everything from the tiniest microorganisms to distant solar systems, why would it not include the study of the development of human beings? Furthermore, why would we assume that human development is simpler or easier to understand than anything else in the universe? I could go on and on about the problematic misconceptions of the study of human development and misconceptions about the social sciences overall. However, what I want to focus on is the tendency for women to be criticized when they are perceived as being too “career-oriented”, but they are also criticized when they are perceived as being too “mommy-oriented”. LDS men certainly face their own brand of criticism for their choice of major as well. This criticism usually centers around whether their major will help them be a good provider or not. In my mind, this seems fairly straight-forward based on the cultural expectation placed on men. However, I find the criticism of women a bit harder to figure out. Why would women be criticized for gaining marketable skills by studying something they are interested in, whether that be in a female- or male-dominated field? On the surface there is nothing about this that conflicts with what the General Authorities have been saying about women’s education for the last couple of decades. I have two ideas for what might be contributing to these trends, but feel free to offer other possible explanations in the comments.
1-A woman’s choice of major is assumed to reflect her desire to have a career or be a SAHM. This assumption seems to be driven somewhat by church culture. The first problem with this assumption is that it is most often viewed as an either/or situation. Many women may want to do both. Furthermore, even women who want to stay at home with their children should be approaching their studies as if they will need to provide for themselves or their families, because many of them will need to. Many of them will never marry or will marry sometime after they have finished their undergraduate degrees. Many will never have children or will need to provide for their children for a wide variety of reasons. There are just too many circumstances in which a woman would need to provide for herself and/or her family to justify not thinking about the marketability of her skills. Another problem with this assumption is that there are jobs in both male and female dominated fields. We don’t assume that a man’s choice of majors (whether it is something in the social sciences or in business) indicates whether he wants to have children or wants to work. Why should we make these assumptions about women? Even though I was an MFHD major, I was always very interested in working professionally and currently work in my chosen field. I have also know women who majored in a male-oriented field who wanted to stop working outside of the home as soon as they had children.
2-In addition church culture, there many be more general cultural tends impacting these attitudes. There is a general trend for some men to feel treated by or uncomfortable with women in male-dominated fields (just look at how people react to female politicians). There is also a general trend to look down on female dominated disciplines and jobs. Cross-culturally, there is a lot of variation in what is considered a “female” job and what is considered a “male” job, but almost universally the male jobs are given more prestige than the female ones. Despite the praise that is often given for women and “women’s work” in the LDS church, these attitudes seem to permeate BYU as well. So how can these attitudes be improved? Many people know that the feminist movement has worked to make it easier for women to both participate and lead in male dominated fields. However, many people don’t know that one of the modern goals of feminism is also to elevate the status of female dominated jobs and disciplines. But wait! Don’t feminists generally look down on women who sell-out for secretarial jobs, decide to have children, or even stay home with those children? This is one of the great misconceptions about modern feminism and I think that this attitude is especially egregious in LDS culture.
Overall, we need to give women the opportunity to be able to study and work (or not work) in the field of their choosing without facing negative stereotypes. How can we accomplish these goals at a predominantly LDS school? I don’t have a good answer to this question. However, these attitudes will not change until women’s majors become less about how they are going to use that major as a stay at home mom and more about personal interests (studying something that they are genuinely interested in) and practical considerations (having a plan for how their major will help them provide for themselves and their families). I do feel strongly that a good balance of personal and practical considerations is good for anyone choosing a major. I sincerely hope that someday our reactions to someone’s major will be based more on them as a person instead of their gender.