Tuesday, May 27, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The numbers are striking.
Of 208 degrees UNLV’s College of Engineering awarded last year, 171 went to men.
Of 153 diplomas the School of Nursing gave out, 136 went to women.
In a society that cherishes equality, at least in principle, the gender gap in these and other fields might prompt us to question whether we are living up to our ideals.
As it turns out, the answer is not simple.
Many researchers point to discrimination as a factor driving women and men to choose different areas of study and, ultimately, different careers. Some experts believe our tendency to view certain fields as “feminine” or “masculine” deters us from taking on nontraditional roles.
But recently, other academics have concluded that women, more often than men, simply prefer working with people and organic materials rather than inanimate things.
Opinions on what to do about the gender gap are also divided.
Some see equal representation as the goal, while others say pushing for equal numbers of men and women in all careers could backfire, creating a population of unhappy workers prone to leaving their jobs in search of a better life.
When Nevada State College lecturer Wallace Henkelman visits elementary schools to talk about his profession, students often greet him with surprise.
“When I introduce myself as a nurse to young children, they don’t believe it,” he said.
“When you talk, particularly to children in grade school, they think doctors have to be men and nurses have to be women ... I tell them that either one can do either, and you’re not restricted (by) what you are.”
Like many other people, Henkelman points to a lack of male role models in nursing as one reason why men might be reluctant to choose that profession.
“If you think about nurses,” UNLV nursing lecturer and clinical instructor Kevin Gulliver says, “the first thing that pops into your head generally isn’t a guy.”
Gulliver noted that in popular culture, nurses are often portrayed as women in skimpy outfits. That “hyperfeminization” and “hypersexualization” of the profession can turn men off, Gulliver said.
The same principles may apply to other fields.
Eric Sandgren, dean of UNLV’s engineering college, said the traditional view of engineering as a male discipline is one reason young women are less likely to pursue it.
Stacy Nelson, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at UNLV, pointed out that even as youths, boys are exposed to engineering in ways girls are usually not, building model airplanes and working on cars.
Teaching girls about engineering before they get to college could help to close the gender gap, she said.
“If we want to attract more women to engineering, younger girls need to have role models,” she added. “They need to see women working in the field.”
Though the number of female engineers in the United States has crept up over the years, men still accounted for about 80 percent of engineering bachelor’s degree recipients in 2004, according to the National Science Foundation.
In nursing, about 90 percent of undergraduates are women, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
Though many students and faculty members say discrimination no longer plays a leading role in pushing men and women away from certain fields, a 2006 report published by The National Academies Press, “To Recruit and Advance: Women Students and Faculty in Science and Engineering,” identified discrimination as a problem.
“The male professors who dominate (science and engineering) departments may feel more comfortable working with male graduate students,” the report said. “Both male faculty and male graduates may unintentionally signal to women candidates that they would be less welcome.”
And male nursing students can also be discouraged in subtle ways, said Chad O’Lynn, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Portland and a former board member of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing.
Men might wonder, for example, how to touch or approach patients without making them feel uncomfortable, O’Lynn said.
“And that’s rarely talked about ... It’s totally ignored, and the assumption is that women already know this stuff, so it’s common sense,” he said. “For guys it isn’t common sense.”
Efforts to recruit men and women into areas where they are underrepresented are often slim.
Sebern Coleman, an admissions counselor and recruiter at NSC, said he focuses more on recruiting ethnic minorities and students in general than on recruiting men into nursing or teaching, another field where they are a relative rarity.
At UNLV, nursing dean Carolyn Yucha said her school has done little to sign up more men. Even so, the percentage of male nursing undergraduates at UNLV has risen to nearly 20 percent. In fall 2003, it was 11 percent.
That puts UNLV on the “high end of where the profession is right now,” Yucha said. “I’m comfortable being at the high end.”
Likewise, UNLV’s engineering department does not have official programs to court women. About 16 percent of undergraduate engineers at the school in fall 2007 were female, compared with about 17 percent in fall 2003.
Still, direct recruitment is not the only way colleges can increase the numbers of men in nursing and women in engineering. Higher education institutions are taking steps that administrators hope will boost the gender diversity of some departments.
“We all benefit from the inclusion of alternative perspectives and experiences,” said Christine Clark, vice president of diversity and inclusion at UNLV. “We don’t know exactly how we’re going to benefit until it happens.”
UNLV has a multicultural engineering program that links minority students, including women, to scholarships and support services such as mentoring.
One of every six full-time faculty members in engineering is a woman; one of every six in nursing is a man.
The College of Southern Nevada has held fairs and seminars aimed partly at bringing more men and women into nontraditional fields.
Drawing more women into engineering could help alleviate staffing shortages in that area.
“We are, as a nation, in desperate short supply of engineers right now ... If we continue to be a white-male-dominated profession, we’ll never get the number of students that we need,” Sandgren said. “So we have to broaden the appeal of engineering, the reach of engineering.”
But not everyone sees closing the gender gap as an imperative. Take Susan Pinker, a psychologist and columnist for the Globe and Mail in Toronto whose recent book, “The Sexual Paradox,” analyzes why women and men make different career choices.
“Should we force the issue of having a 50-50 distribution in occupations? I would say no for a lot of reasons,” she said. “One is that among women who do go into engineering, you have a huge exodus ... They went into the profession because they were good at it, but many of them later find that they’re not interested in it.”
From Pinker’s perspective, a dearth of female role models doesn’t explain why there are so few women in engineering. As “The Sexual Paradox” points out, a lack of role models “hasn’t stopped women from flooding law, medicine, pharmacy, veterinary and biology departments — all previously male-dominated disciplines.”
Drawing from the work of numerous researchers, Pinker argues that men and women’s differing interests go a long way toward explaining gender gaps in certain fields. Women, on average, tend to be more empathetic than men, which leads them more often than men to prefer working with people and living things, rather than with inanimate objects, Pinker said.
This, she believes, is one reason women engineers leave their profession at greater rates than their male counterparts.
“The notion that we should have a 50-50 distribution in all occupations is based on an outdated idea that men and women are biological clones,” Pinker said.
And that is a feeling that Emma Regentova, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UNLV, shares. Equal opportunity, she said, will not necessarily result in a 50-50 split among the sexes in every occupation.
“I would say there are certain things that women do more reluctantly than men, and vice versa,” she said. “So why not leave to men something that they do with more passion than women do?”
“The beauty of our lives,” she added, “is that men and women are different.”