Gender and subject in higher education

  • Kim E. Thomas

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis is concerned with the issue of gender inequality in higher education. It examines the relationship between gender and subject specialisation, looking in particular at the reasons for the predominance, at undergraduate level, of men in the physical sciences, and of women in the humanities. It investigates ideas of `masculinity' and `femininity' and how these relate to constructions of `science' and `arts'. The thesis argues that students choose which subject to study on the basis of certain qualities these subjects are seen to hold, and that these qualities have close connections with beliefs about `masculinity' and `femininity'. It examines this through an interview study of male and female students on six higher education courses: two university courses of physics, two university courses of English, a polytechnic course in communications and a polytechnic course in physical science. The interview study demonstrates that the science subjects are perceived by science students as more certain, more useful and more important than the humanities, and emphasise the value of their degree in gaining a well-paid and important job. Female science students, however, experience conflict between being `a good scientist' and being `feminine'. English and communications students emphasise the breadth, uncertainty and individuality of their subjects, and find science restrictive and narrow. They make little link between their degree and their future career. Men, however, feel no conflict between their identity as men and their chosen subject. It is argued that there is a close link between the construction of masculinity and the construction of physical science, but that English and communications are more ambivalent: in some senses `masculine', in some `feminine'. Men are advantaged in these subjects because of their greater visibility and assertiveness. The thesis concludes that the division between `science' and `arts' reinforces ideas of masculinity and femininity, and argues that female `failure' in education is in part the result of higher education's inability to transcend that division.
Date of AwardDec 1987
Original languageEnglish


  • Gender
  • subject
  • higher education
  • education

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