Gender diversity in international education

Gender diversity in international education EAIE Forum

If it wasn’t for my sophomore theatre professor, I may have never thought about studying abroad during college. Having never been out of the USA before, the idea of taking classes in a different country always seemed elusive and rather unattainable to me. Many of my peers already knew where they wanted to go abroad, having traveled with their families to places I had never been and only seen in movies or read about in books. But my professor was convincing me that not only was it something I could do, but it was something I needed to do. He knew the transformative power of international education and was eager to share it with every student, even those like myself who had never owned a passport.

I related to him and his passion for studying theatre, and from that connection came respect and trust – enough respect to listen to his pitch of a summer theatre class in London and enough trust to take the plunge and experience my first trip abroad. Having previously toyed with the idea of studying abroad, I never successfully found an international education staff member at my university who I related to and was similar to myself. Without having someone that I could connect with strongly enough to share this rapport, it was difficult for me to see myself in a global context and consider the opportunity of leaving the country, especially for the first time.

So why do we, as international education practitioners, find that today we are struggling to wrap our heads around how to cultivate more gender diversity in international opportunities like study abroad? Why are we surprised year after year to see that the population studying abroad is still dominated by female students?

Exploring industry trends

“We want to have more diversity in students studying abroad!” “How do we recruit more male participants?” These are only a few of the familiar statements overhead at recent international education conferences I have attended. With American universities’ admissions teams constantly strategising to increase their own recent diversity efforts for attracting and supporting a non-traditional student population, it is no surprise that the world of international education is hungry to achieve the same.

I can’t help but think, though, that I don’t tend to see this diversity in the international education staff of American universities. Looking around my table at conference breakout sessions, throughout the room during the opening plenary, or around the dinner table at a site visit, I notice that most of the attendees look rather similar to myself. However, there is one easily noticeable difference: I am a male-identifying practitioner in the field.

Achieving gender diversity in the field

So how can international education staff members resembling the very study abroad students they anxiously seek to diversify be surprised when they see that year after year their study abroad demographics tend to stay the same? Rather than reaching these underrepresented students they want to provide an international experience to, they consistently find more of the same – students that resemble their own backgrounds and have followed educational pursuits similar to their own.

This raises the question: Is a diversity and inclusion strategy really enough to achieve more gender balance in outward mobility and study abroad programmes? Sure, we can have professional development opportunities to attend, articles to read, and outreach strategies to put into play. But without strong campus collaboration, however, we will never reach those students we are year after year struggling to attract. Discussing funding, health and safety concerns is only another part of solving this puzzle. The solution, however, is much larger in scope and perhaps even simpler than we may think. We must diversify those working in international education and strive to achieve gender balance of our own before we can diversify our student profile and achieve more gender balance abroad.

Connection is key

I encourage those not in agreement with this opinion to think back to their own college experiences, just as I have reflected on mine. Who were your favourite professors? Which administrators did you enjoy working closely with, or would say “hello” to in passing? Chances are, they are people you could connect with by sharing common ground, experiences and backgrounds. Being able to relate to faculty and staff in academia is one of the strongest ways to forge close student-teacher and student-staff ties. That being said, looking around at these conferences, we should not be surprised and be left scratching our heads, wondering why our efforts are failing to diversify the student population studying abroad. Instead, I would strongly argue that we practitioners need to admit our similarities. Perhaps to reach the gender diversity in study abroad we long for, we actually need to turn the focus away from diversifying the student population studying abroad and instead start by diversifying where it all begins: in our home universities’ international education offices.

This post is part of Forum Week on the EAIE blog, where we share additional articles not included in the magazine. Be sure to check in the rest of the week for more great content on gender in internationalisation. 

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William Bonfiglio
Washington University in St. Louis, USAWilliam Bonfiglio is Study Abroad Adviser at the Washington University in St. Louis, USA.