Why Do More Women Than Men Study Abroad?

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Andrea Biagini
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From the 17th to the 19th centuries, wealthy young men from England, upon finishing their formal schooling, went on what was known as the Grand Tour. On their journey around Europe they could connect with the art, history, and culture of different countries, while also enjoying an extended vacation before the responsibilities of adulthood kicked in. 

The Grand Tour was a rite of passage, but one almost solely reserved for men. By the time I studied in Florence, Italy during the fall semester of my junior year, that narrative had changed. When I took a class focused on literature about the Grand Tour, most of the other students taking it with me were women. These days, it’s much more common for young women to study abroad than it is for young men.

​Me on the beach in Viareggio, a trip I took with four other girls and one guy. That was a pretty average gender ratio for group hangouts while we were in Italy.

​Me on the beach in Viareggio, a trip I took with four other girls and one guy. That was a pretty average gender ratio for group hangouts while we were in Italy.

About 65% of American college students who study abroad are female, and that gender gap has been pretty consistent over the years. For at least twenty years, female students studying abroad have outnumbered male students around two to one. A quick Google reveals a lot of literature on the subject, most of it devoted to the question of how to attract more male students to international programs.

This article from GoAbroad.com tries to address some of the concerns that prevent male students from going abroad. Here’s the list:

1. "They don’t have my major there."

2. "I can’t fit studying abroad into my degree schedule."

3. "I wouldn’t be able to maintain a long-distance relationship with my significant other."

4. "I won’t be able to make friends studying abroad, and I don’t want to leave the ones I have at home."

Beneath each point, the author goes on to explain why those are more often concerns for men than for women. For example, he writes that more men study in STEM fields, which makes it difficult to take time off from your regular courses. 

He’s not wrong, exactly, but I was annoyed at the way it wasn’t examined more. Girls pick easy majors like art and education, so it’s okay for them to go drink wine for credit in a foreign country! Boys, on the other hand, must be studiously bent over a Bunsen burner for four straight years in order to succeed.

I haven’t conducted any extensive studies of my own, but it seems like there’s a weird cycle of half-truths and assumptions at play here. More men choose STEM majors because that’s presumed to be a more manly thing to study (young girls being discouraged from entering STEM fields is a problem too, but that’s been tackled elsewhere). These mostly-male majors make it more difficult for their students to go abroad, so less male students go. Since more women are studying abroad, it becomes coded as a feminine thing to do, and even less men do it, even if they have the opportunity.

The point of the “4 Reasons…” list is to convince more people to study abroad, which I’m all for. But to say that these reasons are more relevant to guys than to girls is bullshit.

The first two points address academic concerns. The school in Florence didn’t have my major, which was music education. In a typical semester, I might take four or five classes, participate in two performing ensembles, take lessons in my main instrument and classes in two or three secondary instruments, all while attending required recitals and studio classes weekly. Are there really still people who believe arts and education majors aren’t working hard? Studying abroad meant it took me an extra semester to graduate, but my family could afford it and we decided it was worth it. These days if money isn’t an issue, a “degree schedule” can be whatever you want it to be.

The other two points focus more on personal relationships, which are a thing everyone can have, regardless of gender. I don’t know why a girl would be less concerned about leaving her significant other than a guy would, even though I got very lucky in that respect. When I started to think about going abroad, I was already in a long distance relationship—we’d spent two years traveling between Georgia and Massachusetts and another year between Connecticut and Massachusetts. Still, I talked to my boyfriend about how we would handle the longer-than-usual separation. 

We Skyped a lot, and he came to visit me for the week of my fall break. Six years later we got married and spent part of our honeymoon revisiting my favorite spots in Florence, so I’m going to say that one worked out okay.

My boyfriend took this in the Boboli Gardens. Is it any wonder he proposed?

My boyfriend took this in the Boboli Gardens. Is it any wonder he proposed?

The last point on the list, worrying about making new friends, is framed as a boy problem, because girls are “naturally better at managing” their social lives. I guess I’m not one of those girls. I took a quick poll of men I know who studied abroad, and one of them pointed out that in his program in Ireland more girls had come with groups of friends, while the guys seemed to have come to a decision on their own. There was only one other person from my university in the program, but we hadn’t known each other before deciding to come to Florence. After I abandoned her at the airport and she stood me up for dinner, we never spoke again.

I also lack the mythical girl-ability to make new friends right away. I hung around with my roommates and their friends for a while, a mostly-American, overwhelmingly female clique. I felt like we didn’t have much in common, though, and I spent a lot of time alone. After a huge fight over money with my roommates and a really miserable evening in a crowded club listening to an American pop singer, I quietly cut ties with most of them.

Not to say it was all a bust on the friendship front. I met great people while I was there, guys and girls both. But it took a while, and by the time I had a group I was comfortable with it was time to go home.

Instead of talking about all the reservations we have about going abroad, let’s talk about why it’s awesome. I went for a lot of reasons. My grandfather was born in Italy, in a little village outside of the city of Lucca. I still have family there, most of whom I had never met or hadn’t seen since I was very young. There was also my cousin, who had studied in Florence five years before me. She loved her time in Italy and encouraged me to go. Her visit while I was there is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

In Lucca with Puccini, indulging my love of music history and family history.

In Lucca with Puccini, indulging my love of music history and family history.

I also wanted living in a foreign country to push me out of my comfort zone and make me feel like a more capable adult. It did—ordering in restaurants and making phone calls in English never made me as anxious again after I did it in Italian for four months. I realized I could live away from my family and be okay, and I came home way more confident in my abilities to function in the real world. Isn’t that what college is about?

I hope I wouldn’t have turned down these experiences if I’d been a man. I know lots of people who went to get in touch with their heritage, to live in a foreign country, and to learn about themselves. Whatever your reasons, whatever your gender, it can be a life-changing experience. I say go for it.