Deciding Factors in Study Abroad – Women vs Men

The article below was printed in the Chronicle of Higher Education on November 6th, 2009.  I found this new research regarding why women tend to study abroad more than men to be particularly interesting, yet I am not completely convinced by these findings.

Women have dominated educational travel abroad for decades –  in the earliest tradition as a way to teach girls to be “young ladies” who were well versed in foreign languages and the arts. The vast majority of study abroad programs still reside in Western European countries and require language and culture study.

This article does not clarify whether men are less likely to go abroad due to more stringent academic requirements in fields of study that are more traditionally populated by men (i.e. engineering/sciences/math that require sequential coursework with less flexibility for study). It also does not reference the quality or method of academic advising that led students to decide to participate in study abroad.

I find the commentary about women following faculty advising to be particularly interesting.  Does this mean that women latch on to a positive faculty influence more readily than men do and therefore elevate the possibility of receiving direct advice about the value of study abroad? Does this hold true for other academic experiences such as internships or co-op experiences?

I want to know more about the data collection and what other factors were considered before feeling confident in this research.  The research references data from 19 colleges  – 4 year and 2 years institutions.  But what is the split – were there 17 four year schools and  2 community colleges? Were the four year colleges private or public institutions? What is the break down of the majors of the 2800 students?  Were they primarily humanities/social science students?  What percentage were in the hard sciences?

What are your initial thoughts on this research?  Are women and men significantly different in factors that lead to decisions about study abroad? What questions or affirmations does this research raise for you?  I’m curious to hear your feedback and equally curious to see if there will be expanded research on this subject.  The topic is a vital question for international educators and certainly one that will be of great interest to those in the field that are responsible for marketing programs to their own students and those on other campuses.

November 6, 2009 – From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Men and Women Differ in How They

Decide to Study Abroad, Study Finds

By Peter Schmidt

Vancouver, British Columbia

Women appear to be much more likely than men to choose to study abroad because of significant gender-based differences in how students are influenced by their backgrounds, academic environments, and social interactions, according to research results being presented here this week as part of the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

The findings suggest that advocates of study-abroad programs “need to craft targeted marketing strategies that recognize and account for key differences between women and men,” says a paper summarizing the results of a study by three researchers at the University of Iowa.

“While intent to study abroad among women seems to be affected by influential authority figures and educational contexts,” the paper says, “intent to study abroad among men seems to be primarily shaped by emerging personal values, experiences, and peer influence.”

The key question the study sought to tackle was why women are almost twice as likely as men to embark on foreign study. Although the gender gap is sometimes assumed to simply reflect the preponderance of women in the fine arts, foreign languages, and other humanities majors heavily represented in foreign-study programs, the reality is that it exists even in male-dominated majors such as engineering and the hard sciences.

Mark Salisbury, a research assistant at Iowa’s Center for Research on Undergraduate Education, and Michael B. Paulsen and Ernest T. Pascarella, both professors of higher education there, based their analysis on data about some 2,800 students at 19 four-year and two-year colleges and universities participating in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. The students were surveyed by the Wabash-study researchers shortly after entering college as freshmen in the fall of 2006 and were asked about their intent to study abroad when surveyed again in the spring of 2007.

In crunching the survey data to determine what had influenced students’ decisions to study abroad, the researchers found marked differences in how the different genders responded to different forces in their lives.

Having highly educated parents appeared to make women more likely to intend to study abroad, but it did not have any effect on men’s intentions, reflecting the broader observation among researchers that women are more likely to make college-going decisions based on their parents’ preferences.

Similarly, taking classes that focus on human diversity and differences appeared to leave women more likely to intend to study abroad but did not have an impact on men, suggesting that, just as women are more influenced by their parents than are men, they may be more influenced by faculty members or, at least, the courses that faculty members teach.

The Iowa researchers are found that:

  • The more men interacted with their peers, the less likely they were to intend to study abroad. Peer interactions did not have such an impact on women.
  • Women, but not men, who attended regional institutions or community colleges were less likely than those attending liberal-arts colleges to intend to study abroad. The researchers speculated that perhaps “something about the educational culture at regional institutions and community colleges is negatively affecting women’s intent to study abroad,” or that perhaps “women attending these institutions are impacted by additional obligations such as family or parenting responsibilities that preclude the possibility of studying abroad.”
  • Being undecided on a major appeared to leave men substantially more likely to choose to study abroad but not to have any significant impact on women.
  • In some cases, culture and gender appeared to interact. Asian-American men, but not Asian-American women, were significantly less likely than white students to intend to study abroad. And although Hispanic men and white men were equally likely to intend to study abroad, Hispanic women were significantly more likely to intend to study abroad than were white women.


  1. Interesting findings, Missy. I can only share with you anecdotal research…(My own).

    My wife did study abroad her junior year of college. And I didn't.

    My factors for not studying abroad:

    1) Money. I was on financial aid with a job on campus and I thought (maybe incorrectly) that going abroad was out of reach.

    2) I didn't want to miss anything on campus. I had this crazy idea that if I went away from campus I would miss out on opportunities. I was very involved with theater in college and there was sort of a ladder to getting to direct a show. It was probably all in my mind, but I remember that that was a thought I had.

    3) I wasn't particularly strong in a foreign language. Going to London was always a dream. I did manage to work there after college for 5 months.

    4) I was having a great time just being on campus.

    5) My older brother (who was at the same school) also did not go abroad.

    That kind of sums it up. Thanks for posting this and good luck with your blog. It's terrific.

    • Hi Chris! So good to hear from you – thanks for your comments and kind words. You raise a very good point – students who are highly involved in student government, clubs, activities and sports (under the bucket of student "leaders") are less likely to go abroad because of their participation in roles on campus. This contributes to the trend of increased participation in more short term (winter/J term, summer, spring break, hybrid) study abroad programs. Money always seems to enter the conversation about going abroad – for many students it is also about the opportunity cost of not being able to work also during the period abroad. Language requirements are a bit of a myth in terms of access to study abroad programs; many programs in non-English speaking countries offer courses in English while studying the host country language also. Perhaps you hit on the largest challenge – that perceived or real lack of funds (as depending on the institutional model and destination country, some programs can cost less than staying at home) and missing something while being "away" are still significant barriers. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

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