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Admissions 105: Gender Matters
by Linda Sax

Today—decades after the women’s movement garnered significant access, equity, and opportunity for female students—the popular notion is that gender equity has been achieved in higher education. Indeed, women are now the majority of undergraduates (about 58% nationally), earn better college grades than men, and are more likely to complete college. But a closer examination reveals
ongoing challenges to women’s progress, particularly in the areas of confidence and stress.

The Confidence Factor

Nationwide surveys of college students conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute have found that, despite earning better grades and being more likely than men to complete a college degree, women evaluate themselves lower than men on nearly every assessment of academic ability. When asked to rate their intellectual self-confidence compared to that of their peers, for example, nearly two-thirds of male first-year college students place themselves in the top two categories (“above average” or “highest 10%”) compared to fewer than half the women—despite the fact that women’s GPAs are consistently higher than men’s. Low academic self-confidence can limit students’ aspirations and future achievements.

One factor affecting women’s self-confidence is the proximity of their college to their family home. A national longitudinal study I conducted of approximately 10,000 women and 7,000 men who attended 204 four-year co-educational colleges and universities in the late 1990s showed that, when choosing a college, women feel more pressure than men to satisfy their parents’ wishes and select a college close to home. Yet this and other studies suggest that attending a nearby college may not be in a female student’s best interest. The further a woman travels to attend college, the more likely she is to gain confidence in her academic, intellectual, writing, public speaking, and leadership skills. Leaving home also encourages a strong sense of independence and helps women to construct their academic and social identities.

For men, on the other hand, whether they attend college close to home or 3,000 miles away seems to make no practical difference in terms of their emotional well-being or confidence in academic and personal leadership abilities, perhaps because men have achieved greater emotional separation from their families by the time they enter college.

There’s a lesson here for parents who think a daughter is not ready to leave home. By letting her go, they are enabling her to become more confident academically, emotionally, and socially. In contrast, encouraging her to stay close by in order to “ease her adjustment to college” may have the unintended consequence of impeding her development.

Interestingly, data on Jewish college students suggests that Jewish parents may have gotten the message. Jewish students tend to attend college further away from their parents. Moreover, unlike in the general population, where practically no gender differences exist in the distance students travel to school, Jewish women are more likely than Jewish men to attend colleges more than 100—and more than 500—miles away from their families. This bodes well for instilling a sense of independence and self-confidence among female Jewish undergraduates, and is especially important since gender gaps in intellectual and emotional self-confidence are just as large in the Jewish population as in the general student population.

The Stress Factor

Women also report higher stress levels than men over the four years of college, partly because of the differences in how women and men choose to spend their time. Male undergraduates tend to spend more time playing sports, partying, watching television, and playing video games; female students spend more time studying, meeting with instructors, joining student groups, doing volunteer work, and contributing to household or child care responsibilities. In general, the activities men pursue are more leisure-based and can serve as a stress release, while the responsibilities women devote themselves to can create a sense of being overwhelmed by one’s commitments.

These gender differences in stress and time commitments are just as prevalent in the Jewish college population. However, the overall levels of stress are slightly higher among all Jewish students. Both Jewish women and men are more likely than their non-Jewish counterparts to feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, perhaps because Jewish students tend to spend more time studying, talking with teachers, and getting involved in school-based clubs and groups. Jewish women engage in these activities even more than Jewish men, a matter of concern given the connection between stress and health problems. On the other hand, decades of research have made clear that being engaged in campus life promotes greater satisfaction in college, improves GPAs, and increases the likelihood of degree attainment.

Thus, even though women appear to suffer from lower levels of confidence and a higher sense of stress in college, they also tend to be engaged in the very sorts of activities that enhance their academic success. To further both academic and personal development, Jewish women—and all women—need to find a healthy balance between involvement and over-commitment.

—Linda J. Sax, an associate professor of higher education and organizational change in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles; and author of The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men (2008) as well as America’s Jewish Freshmen: Current Characteristics and Recent Trends Among Students Entering College (2002). Portions of this essay appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2007).


Union for Reform Judaism.