by Sarah Ovink
Women’s ever-increasing share of the student body on U.S. college campuses (57%, on average) is by now common knowledge. Hand-wringing in the national media over this gender reversal has also become commonplace, and includes worries about women’s dwindling dating prospects and speculation that we might see the number of stay-at-home-dads skyrocket in the coming years as women choose careers over child-rearing and family life.
As a sociologist of education, I read these stories with interest and some bemusement. While it is certainly true that women have come to outnumber men on college campuses, it is also true that men continue to out-earn women—even when comparing women and men with identical college majors, resumes, and career paths. Though women have undeniably made progress, is the college gender reversal also heralding a gender revolution in work and family life?
Curious as to whether women’s growing college success was, indeed, rewriting gender “rules,” I took a closer look at gender differences in my ongoing study of 50 Latino and Latina college aspirants. These 23 men and 27 women were high school seniors in the 2007-2008 academic year, and all of them aimed to complete a college degree. Using in-depth interviews with each of these young adults at three time-points, spanning a two-year period in their lives, I traced their post-high-school college and employment journeys. In my study, I focus on the influence of Latino/a familism, or the privileging of family interests over those of the individual, as a defining feature of these young Latinos/as’ college pathways. Familism influenced everything from where interviewees chose to attend college (usually close to home), to which major they picked, to how much was “worth” spending on college, especially when younger siblings were in the picture.
I found that, indeed, Latinas were more often enrolling in college and making progress toward a four-year degree. Women in my study perceived strong family pressure to finish college and establish careers before getting married and having children. However, their responses did not point to increasing gender equality as the reason why. Quite the contrary; Latinas felt they needed to attain a degree in order to earn independence—specifically, independence from men, in order to be free from worries about “needing a guy” for support. Rather than working to rewrite traditional gender “rules” about breadwinning and childcare arrangements, Latinas I spoke with sought merely to postpone the restrictions of conventional gendered family dynamics. All women interviewees expected to one day marry, and when they did, to “slow down,” care for children, and subordinate personal goals in favor of family interests. Latinos wanted a college education too, but their goals stemmed more from desires for prestige and higher pay, not fears of dependency. While both genders expressed familistic tendencies, I found that familism itself worked differently by gender. Gendered familism meant that Latinas and Latinos expressed different ideas about what it meant to put family interests first, how they planned to do so, and where college fit in their overall picture of family support.
Sarah M. Ovink, Virginia Tech, her article, “They Always Call me an Investment: Gendered Familism and Latino/a College Pathways,” was recently published in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society.