LDS Undergraduate Women: “Major” Decisions

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.


  1. I think there is maturity factor involved in the denigration of certain majors. My girlfriends and I would moan about our engineering homework and threaten to switch to the “Home and Family Living” major. I remember we finally determined during the second semester of our junior year that it would no longer be faster to graduate in HFL.
    As the years passed, I gained respect for majors I had previously mocked. My biggest realization was that no way in a million years could I handle being in a classroom with 30 kindergartners all day. Elementary school teachers are saints.

  2. I majored in linguistics and, perhaps because it is almost 50/50 male:female, it didn’t seem like there was a lot of that being looked down upon. This may also be because it is on the edge of “social science” and “science.” But I think it was also influenced by the pretty balanced gender ratio.

  3. Edit to above: I was at BYU. Also, not sure how to get people to understand that every field of study is hard in some ways and easy in others. Maybe HokieKate is right and it just takes time to see that for one’s self.

  4. I agree, no individual should feel like they can’t make choices and be respected for those choices. That said, many stereotypes exist for a reason. I definitely don’t think that MFHDs are less intelligent, less hard-working, or less ambitious. Less CAREER-ambitious (obviously, a generalization- your results may vary), maybe, but not less LIFE-ambitious. And definitely not less intelligent. But yes, to me, being an MFHD major is a way of declaring certain priorities- priorities that are worthy and should not be belittled, but priorities worth owning up to.

    Of course, this is coming from an english/turned humanities/turned linguistics major who entered BYU with no ambition other than to get a bachelors (field of study was irrelevant, I just needed the degree) and a husband.
    But then, I married a Math Education major, so apparently I missed the memo on judging men’s majors based off their ability to provide.
    I also now work fulltime and have a stay-at-home-husband/dad, so apparently the world missed the memo that the fact my only ambition in college was to be pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen (with my degree hanging on my wall) does not diminish my actual intelligence or value- turns out I’m a darn good breadwinner AND babymaker.

    Now, this is going to sound horrible and I may regret it, but after 6 years in provo, having met many MFHD majors, when you said “working professionally” I had to sit and think about what an MFHD major does professionally. Is that like… social work? professional childcare? teaching? I don’t mean that to be snarky, I’m genuinely curious. I realized in reading this post that I know very little about the MFHD major aside from the baby-making generalizations. Do other universities have an equivalent major? Is there a subset of MFHD majors that do not have the ultimate goal of stay-at-home-mommihood (or daddihood)?

    All that said, I definitely agree with the previous commenter- with age I realize I wrongly judged many fields of study, including my own. No one will graduate from BYU without critical thinking skills, ability to research, take exams, write, analyze… and the level of effort and value the graduates provide society have very little to do with their salary or the prestige assigned to their field of studies.

  5. Jenn,

    You are right that there were plenty of MFHD majors that fit the stereotype. They wanted to study something that would be useful to them as a mom and that was what they chose. There were also a fair number of MFHD majors who didn’t fit the stereotype as well. They were interested in jobs in the field or on going on to grad school.

    As far as MFHD being at other universities, I think that it is helpful to know that studying human development is a specialization within psychology. You study the same theories and everything, but you just focus on how people change over time. That can include any time within the lifespan (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or late adulthood). Almost all universities have psychology programs that include some developmental classes, and many universities include separate majors for people who want to study developmental issues. I would imagine that because of the stereotypes at BYU, students who were interested in professional work and further schooling would gravitate towards the psychology major and away from the MFHD major, but in many ways the majors are similar.

    Yes, someone in the major could go on to do social work, or work in childcare. I worked on research during my undergraduate years, and went on to get a Ph.D. in Child Psychology. I now teach undergrads and am working on research projects. My ultimate goal is to be a professor at a university.

  6. My husband & I used to joke that we were the opposite of the typical BYU couple. Since I was a PE major & he majored in MFHD, we were both in very small gender minorities in our departments. I didn’t get as much questioning or pushback in my department as my husband did. He was frequently asked what he was going to do with his degree or if he was just in it to meet girls. Once he was in grad school, he encountered a lot more support, but I’m not sure if that is because he was in grad school or because we weren’t at BYU anymore. As far as what people do for a career with a degree in MFHD, my husband got his M. A. in Marriage & Family Therapy and owns a mental health clinic. I taught school (because that’s where the jobs were) until I had kids and now I’m trying to decide what I want to be when I finally get them all in school. My latest plan is to get my PharmD so I can have a decent paying job with flexible hours (kind of the opposite of teaching public school). The nice thing about having majored in exercise physiology with all the guys who then went on to med or dental school is that I already have almost all the prerequisite classes done. And the career is so much more conducive to having a family than teaching was–I can make a living wage and have a flexible schedule!

  7. When I was in my Bachelors level study of Social Work it was pretty female dominated. All of the males were treated like they were future administrators (by faculty and fellow students) and the women were treated like it was assumed we would be in entry level casework positions the rest of our careers. And I didn’t even go to BYU. This attitude annoyed me then and it annoyed me now. And it was done by people in a field of study who were supposedly “enlightened” to the detrimental effects of gender roles.

  8. I am not sure that any woman today has a choice between career and “SAHM.” The latter work is time-limited, and today’s climate of self-funded retirement means that few families can afford for one adult to be at home for her entire life. The only question is whether the careers will be pursued sequentially or simultaneously.

    I serve on the parent’s advisory committee of a state university where two of my children have attended, and one of my gripes is that the women students there get all kinds of support for pursuing full-time goals, but zero counseling or support about careers that allow for part-time employment, for those who want to spend some years at home with children. There are a lot of great fields: physical therapists are in such demand they can choose their hours, and I have a friend who worked every other Saturday morning while her kids were little. She kept her certification and her husband had quality time with the tykes. Another friend is a pharmacist, one teaches aerobics, and one is an occupational therapist who has a part-time contract with the school system, so she is always home when her kids have a day off and after school with them. Another friend is an accountant who does part-time bookkeeping/tax preparation in her home.

    I was in a meeting where a speaker declared that liberal arts majors can make more than nursing majors. This is true only because a lot of nurses choose to work part-time or PRN. It is a great career for a mom, or a dad–and men are increasingly joining the ranks. Some masters level nursing specialties earn more than family practice MDs. But yes, lower prestige because of being a pink-collar field.

    I think that until uterine replicators are developed and proven safe as a method to birth children without the compromises of pregnancy and lactation, that career counseling that includes part-time options for women is essential.

    Where I live, police officers are required to take child development classes so that they can understand age-appropriate communication.

  9. As an El Ed major at BYU, it was also assumed that I was in the field because it was a good career for a “mom.” It was very rarely assumed that I actually wanted to be a teacher, which I did. I will admit, though, like the MFHD major, there were many in my degree who had no desire to teach and were just in the program because it was good preparation for being a mother.

    Don’t get me wrong, I fully respect anyone who wants to be a mother. I am single, but I have many friends who are SAHM. I don’t consider them any less intelligent or hard-working than me. Infact, most of the time, I think their jobs look like hell and you couldn’t pay me to trade my single child-free lifestyle for theirs. Being a mom is tough-stuff and I am in constant admiration for those who dedicate their lives to their children.

    What I don’t like is that woman who are in my profession are sometimes considered as “less-than” because we chose the “easy” degree. Teaching is not easy. It’s a very emotionally, physically, mentally demanding career. It’s exhausting. I feel that woman who are in degrees like El Ed and MFHD because they are good preparation for being a mom perpetuate the myth that these are not respectable degrees. That’s fine if you want to be a mom, but please don’t act like these degrees are just time-fillers until you get married, because some of us take them seriously.

    Bekah – Totally agree with your assessment of teaching. I am actually looking into a career change, because, even as a single person, I don’t feel that teaching provides for a viable retirement. I look at all that my grandparents prodigious posterity does to take care of them and realize that I probably won’t have that and need to make sure that I’m adequately provided for. Also, I do like to play. Summers are nice, but it would be even nicer if I had some money so I could actually do something with them. 🙂

  10. Natsy is right. We need to stop thinking of teaching as unskilled work that virtually anyone can do. The only reason we undervalue teaching in this country is because it’s considered traditionally feminine work. My experience is that the public school system is full of people who hate kids and know nothing about their subjects. Teaching should be regarded as highly skilled labor appropriate to people with a particular suite of talents.

  11. I love this post and all the previous comments. As much as it would help to remove the stereotypes about education and to help people find part-time job options, I think the deeper problem is with the job market. Too many corporations have bought into the idea that a dedicated worker=full time worker or even dedicated worker=overtime worker. Many workers have few options to change their schedules or to take parental leave, and so often parents with children get pushed out of their jobs when they want to take time with their families.
    I also think negotiation and marketing skills need to be a part of every student’s education, no matter what field they choose to study, because when the job market is stuck in 1950’s mode, people who want to find some kind of balance need to take charge of making that happen themselves.

  12. Your post mirrored at least one aspect of my college experience exactly. I majored in civil engineering at BYU. On my second day of school one of my classmates walked up to me and said, “I don’t know why they let women into school here. It takes spots away from men who will be the breadwinners after all.” But by my junior year, I don’t think any of my classmates cared that I was a woman in mostly male classes. Our major was still small enough to be fairly close knit, and I always had good study groups. I think it would have been harder to face the reverse stereotyping for MFHD majors. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  13. I am in an interesting conundrum. I LOVE teaching. I have been a SAHM for 20 years and have just started substituting now that my youngest is in school. I love it, I have a BA but not in education. Why? Because as a BYU undergrad I didn’t want to be a “cliche.” So I put a viable career (that I was truly interested in) on the shelf to pursue a more “academic” liberal arts option. I didn’t want to be “one of those BYU girls who just bides her time with El. Ed.” Foolish. Now I have 2 kids in college and am trying to figure out how to help them and at the same time get another degree for myself.

  14. Christine, my partner has a B.A. and two masters degrees and just made a mid-life career change to become a 4th grade teacher. He was able to complete a program relatively affordably via an online program through Western Governors University. It was much more affordable than going through one of the local universities.

    Good luck with certifying!


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