Falling into the gender gap

Do you know anyone who’s dating someone who seems out of his or her league? We might have an explantion why

Credit: 
Illustration by Dave Lee

“University has ruined me,” my younger brother Brian confessed to me one summer when we were both home from school. “It’s made my standards way too high. I can get girls at school that wouldn’t even look at me here.”

My brother was keenly aware of his good fortune and in no way deluded by the advantageous sex
ratio he benefited from at Western. He knew he was no natural Don Juan. He was humbly aware
that his relative dating success had more to do with factors outside of himself than his own particular attractiveness. I’ve also found—this year more than ever, for some reason—that I know a lot of smart, attractive, sexy and overall quite wonderful women, who are having trouble meeting men. And this confuses me. Like Western—and most North American universities—there are more women than men studying at Queen’s. There are lots of interesting questions raised by the gender disparity, particularly upon greater departmental dissection, where in some cases gaps become even more pronounced. But the question posed for this, the Love and Sex supplement, is just what influence does this gender gap have on the dating, social and sex lives of Queen’s students?

Here’s how the gender gap breaks down at Queen’s: according to the University’s own gender statistics, based on 2005 graduates, just less than 57 per cent of total graduates were women. In Arts and Science, the ratio is about 2:1, women to men, across the board, with the most disparate ratios in
art (6:1), biology (3:1), English (3:1), French (5:1), psychology (8:1) and sociology (6:1). Within Arts and Science, men are only the more common gender in five departments: computer science, economics, film studies, physics and philosophy. The gender gap is also conversely pronounced in Applied Science, where there are about four men for every woman.

Still, Nursing is by far the most disparate, with a ratio of 81:2, women to men.

* * *

Bob Montgomerie is a professor in the biology department, who researches reproductive strategies in humans and animals. I figured talking to him would help me better understand the mating tendencies of our lusty species. But before I can even ask Montgomerie a question, he poses one to me:
“Do you know the women in Washington, D.C., are considered the most beautiful in the States?” he asked. I didn’t have much of an answer for him. “The thought is that this is because of intense competition because the sex ratio is about 6:1 there.” He continued, making a connection to Queen’s.
“I wonder if that’s also true with undergraduate sex ratios. There are two possibilities: either more attractive women stay there or go there, or the women there just make themselves more attractive, or they have to because of the competition for a limited number of males.”

Kristen Balcom, ArtSci ’09, would probably agree with Montgomerie.

“There are a lot of good-looking girls [here] for sure,” she said in response to my question about whether she finds the dating scene at Queen’s to be competitive. But she added that she hasn’t had too much trouble meeting guys.

Balcom and Arielle Pearce, ArtSci ’10, who are both biology majors and were studying in the Common Ground when I spoke with them, said they haven’t noticed a great discrepancy between men and women, except in their language courses. Balcom also said she didn’t really notice the gender disparity at bars or other social outings. “It seems pretty equal.”

Montgomerie said being the rarer sex gives you more choice. “It’s a pretty standard thing in animals, there’s competition for the rarer sex, so when the sex ratio is male-biased, the males compete more heavily for access to the females.” Andrew Milne, Sci ’07, said on a day-to-day basis, he doesn’t really notice the notorious gender disparity in his faculty, but added that he may not be the best guy to talk to because he’s in chemical engineering, the stream of engineering often referred to as “femme-eng.”

Still, he acknowledged that the gender gap exists in engineering and admitted that it may present some obstacles to intra-faculty dating. “In terms of meeting Eng girls outside of class, I guess it’s probably fairly difficult, but I don’t think it’s a huge challenge,” he said. He said he hasn’t really found extra competition for women among the males in his faculty, adding that he would advise against dating within a faculty anyway, because, in his words, “You shouldn’t really fish off the company dock.”

But according to Adam Chippindale, a professor in the biology department who teaches “The Biology of Sex,” proximity is a major predictor of whom a person partners with. “This bodes well for the rare heterosexual, since their exposure will be disproportionately to their sex of choice,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “The assumption is that the dating community is limited to Queen’s, and, with the exception of a small RMC male incursion, my impression is that this is a fairly closed system.”

He later stated that basic evolutionary theory would teach that “If one sex is rare, then it is a precious evolutionary commodity.” “What does this mean for Queen’s students?” he asked.

“If males are typically the rarer sex, and relationships tend to be between students … then males are more valuable here. This suggests that females may compete more for male attentions, may accept lower ‘quality’ mates, and work harder in relationships, and that males may have more potential to ‘trade up’ in the dating game to a (perceived) better mate.

“Although it’s hard to say exactly how people will behave, if social monogamy is our tendency then sex-ratio skews will wreak havoc with our behaviour.” Chippendale concluded his e-mail by saying, “I would definitely send my sons to Queen’s.” I imagined him giving me a wink and a nudge when he wrote the last line.

* * *

Nick Anstett, PhysEd ’09, was surprised to hear that the sex ratio in his faculty wasn’t higher than 3:1. “It seems like it would be more than that,” he said. Anstett said the topic of the gender disparity in PhysEd came up before he even came to Queen’s, when he was talking to recruiters. “It was definitely one of their big selling points,” he said. “Anytime you talked to a guy who was in PhysEd, they talked about the guy-to-girl ratio.” He said he thinks, in general, the men in his faculty are aware of their rareness, saying it’s reflected in their confident and cocky attitudes. “Every girl knows all the PhysEd boys, whereas every boy doesn’t necessarily know every PhysEd girl,” he said, before pausing briefly and then adding, “But I’m still single, aren’t I?” He said he may have thought there was competition among PhysEd women when he was in first year, but not anymore. “We’ve all mixed with other faculties now … but of course during Frosh Week, I’d say so.” When I asked Nick if he thought any of his friends had been with somebody who was out of their league, he needed a little clarification.

“Do you mean date, or hook up with?” Either. “Oh yeah. For sure.”

Caroline Pukall is an associate psychology professor, who researches sex and relationships. She currently teaches a course on human sexuality. She initially took a more optimistic tone than most of the people I spoke with about the disparate sex ratios on campus.

“I think that in some cases it can certainly limit opportunity for the low-ratio gender, but at the same
time I think it opens up possibilities of perhaps being a little bit more open to meeting people from ther disciplines or attending more social functions that may have a mix of new people that one might meet,” she said. But Pukall also said the disparity will likely have an influence on behaviour.

“Some people may feel very limited in their choices, and therefore perhaps maybe make some decisions that they normally wouldn’t make given a larger pool of desired genders that they would like to get involved with; at the same time, perhaps people would not feel that they were being limited in that way and perhaps just not date anyone from that particular program.”

Pukall agreed that for those heterosexuals in the more common gender, the disparity may result in them lowering their standards. “I think it could be possible for some people,” she said. “Certainly not for all, but I think for a proportion of the student population, yes. … “A lot of people engage in behaviours based on perceptions of lack of choice or lack of opportunities to meet people,” she said. “Sometimes when people are faced with perceived or real limitations of potential mates, they may engage in behaviours—to either keep that mate or get a mate—that they would normally not make in a different situation.” Pukall referred to situational homosexuality as seen in prisons and boarding schools as examples where a limited pool of potential sexual partners influences behaviour.
“Sometimes the perception or the reality of a limited situation can force people to do things they otherwise would not do. And so I suppose that compromising, in terms of standards or in terms of trying to keep someone, out of fear of loneliness or something like that,it certainly could play a role.”

Vanessa Kehoe, ConEd ’07 and math major, said she has had some difficulty meeting guys atQueen’s, but didn’t think there was much of a competitive atmosphere on campus.

“I’ve never felt any cattiness.” And she hasn’t felt stifled by the female-dominated ConEd program either. “I feel like it’s so rare that you find people dating within ConEd,” she said, later adding that she has never felt any competition with the other women in her faculty. “Most of my experiences here have been really co-operative.”

* * *

To the heterosexual women reading this (for whom the university-wide gender gap likely feels most pronounced, various faculty eccentricities aside), be comforted in the fact that the gender ratio distortions of a university campus generally don’t carry over into the real world (except for Washington, D.C., apparently). And if you’re still not satisfied, you could always transfer to Waterloo.

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