The Boys Aren’t Back in Town

by Harry on March 3, 2021

A colleague from the school of Education who is visited my (in person, on campus) classes for the first time expressed surprise that out of 40 students total (distributed equally between two classes) only 8 are male. Both classes are in a classroom that is inside a large, new, well-ventilated building with a large atrium in which students typically sit and work (silently). Normally, I would say, that the students in that space are about 50% male. But, prompted by my colleague, I have started counting: from outward appearances the ratio of male: female seems about the same as in my classes. I’m on campus most days, so have started counting (its easy, there’s hardly anyone around). Every part of the campus I am on has about the same ratio, and that includes the Engineering side of campus which I walk through twice a day even when I am not, otherwise, on campus. I’ve inquired with my students: they report roughly the same ratios in the spaces they frequent and that among their friends a much larger proportion of women than of men are taking classes in person.

I presume that the registrar has data on who is taking our in-person classes. I’m curious whether people on other campuses have noticed the same phenomenon, or whether it is specific to Madison or even just that I have a highly unrepresentative experience. If it is a general phenomenon: why?



SusanC 03.03.21 at 11:42 pm

As a British academic: our students aren’t back yet. Indeed, our current health and safety instruction leaflet says something like “in person teaching is not happening” in very large, bold type.

Building access is basically people who have some serious need to physically interact with a piece of lab equipment. Protocols are in place so that you are not in a lab at the same time as another person. it’s like being in some post apocalyptic movie, (Silent Running comes to mind).

The wild animals on campus were interesting before the pandemic, they seem to have got bolder, foxes, badgers, the occasional small deer. You can almost think you’re Bruce Willis at the beginning of Twelve Monkeys.

We will have students in a while, at the moment, it’s mainly the fox to badger ratio that’s observable.


Harry 03.04.21 at 1:18 am

It has been so cold here (well below freezing till this week) that there’s no wildlife but in the Fall I was seeing far more than usual. And, as one of the tiny handful of regular occupants of a huge brutalist building on the edge of the lake I was amused, in November, to get an email from the central campus about ‘Rodent Week’ warning that the rat population was worryingly large, and starting to migrate indoors.


John Quiggin 03.04.21 at 6:39 am

A little off-topic but I just gave my first tutorials for several decades (I’ve mostly held pure research appointments), one in-person and one by Zoom. It’s a course on “climate change as a wicked problem” in the relatively new PPE program at UQ. Nearly all domestic students, unlike the main economics stream which is about half international, so I assume most had the option of attending in either format. Quite a few of our international students were overseas when the pandemic hit and are still there.

More students came to the in-person tutorial, about evenly divided by gender in both.

I mainly wanted to post, because it was such a great discussion, as good as any I experienced as a student in the early 1970s, in courses that covered all the PPE disciplines. [Actually, my best class experiences back then were in maths, a small highly selective class, where we really cared about things like the foundations of calculus.] Given that the standard narrative of Australian university education is one of inexorable decline, I was really pleased by this.


SusanC 03.04.21 at 3:08 pm

@Harry. “The Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t believe they exist!”


David Y. 03.04.21 at 4:50 pm

I asked my college’s residence life staff for data on this (and promised that I would not identify the school to get it). We are a four-year residential liberal arts college in the Midwest, but of course some students are local enough to commute normally. We also have a small number of non-traditional and non-degree-seeking students who live locally. This year, students can study remotely just by asking: a small number of classes are in-person only (lab classes, for example), but most are remote (if the professor has a reason to avoid contact) or hybrid (which can mean just about anything).

Over the past several years (2016-2017 to 2019-2020), we’ve averaged 88.275% of students in residence (90.5% of men, 86.1% of women).

In 2020-2021, we have 74.7% of students in residence, 76.1% of men and 73.3% of women.

All of this data is from our official census date in the fall. I have the sense that a modest number of additional students have moved to remote study since then, but no data on the overall number or gender split.


Neil Levy 03.04.21 at 10:33 pm

Women are less likely to have spaces at home where they can work without being interrupted by others (e.g, family who expect them to help out)?


Harry 03.05.21 at 4:50 am

Yes, generally, but probably not on our campus….


dlambert 03.06.21 at 8:06 pm

U W-M is almost entirely dorm resident students and non-local students residing in rentals, and few commuting from homes, is it not? It seems unlikely that a large fraction of female students are being oppressed by domestic labor demands in the dorms or apartments and are seeking to escape into the pestiliential sanctuary of classrooms for a few hours.

The simplest explanation for a uniform tilt is that they want to be in classrooms more than the boys do, after a year of lockdown. Perhaps the boys feel less need for in-person contact, or find electronic substitutes more satisfactory in hanging out with their pals. (I bet it’s been a great year for online gaming services.)


Kiwanda 03.07.21 at 12:36 am

In general, the decline in enrollment due to the pandemic is steeper for men than for women, although it doesn’t look anything like the scale the OP describes, and it’s more at 2-year than public 4-year colleges. But the prior 3/2 ratio of women to men in college has increased due to the pandemic.


Alan White 03.07.21 at 3:43 am

One hypothesis for recent shifts toward declining male enrollment might be political: I suspect fewer younger women are subject to the Trumpian/Republican-inspired suspicion of so-called “liberal” higher education, given the outlandish misogyny of the past few years by that camp.


hix 03.07.21 at 8:09 pm

Male covid risk is higher. That alone would be a good reason. Men probably were less likely to attend classes in the first place? Now with covid there should be a lot less pressure to attend in person. Neither the outright mandatory attendance/social pressure nor the giving out grade relevant information in bits and pieces that is hard to obtain without attending or at least a very well organized network with other students.

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