Fairer sex rules out physical geography

January 17, 1997

Are field trips too arduous for women? Olga Wojtas reports from the Royal Geographical Society in Exeter. Female students may be put off physical geography because they consider themselves too unfit for the fieldwork, research at Liverpool Hope University College has found.

Sarah Maguire, a lecturer at the college and a project manager for the Higher Education Funding Council for England's "Geography for the New Undergraduate" initiative, found in a survey of students who had done compulsory fieldwork, significantly more women than men believed fieldwork demanded high levels of fitness.

Liverpool Hope, an ecumenical Christian foundation, predominantly recruits students with non-traditional qualifications, 70 per cent of them female, and 30 per cent mature. The survey revealed that 84 per cent of women, compared to 68 per cent of men, said students had to be very fit to do physical geography. More than 55 per cent of women also believed fitness was vital for human geography, a view shared by only 36 per cent of men.

"Physical geography fieldwork involves things like going up mountains looking for evidence of glaciation, whereas human geography is more likely to involve walking round a village," said Dr Maguire.

"Most of the men thought of themselves as fit or very fit, whereas the female students tended to think of themselves as unfit."

This was reflected in how much they enjoyed the disciplines. Men showed a marked preference for physical geography, 28 per cent ranking it highly, with only 8 per cent marking human geography highly. Women were more consistent, with 18 and 16 per cent respectively ranking physical and human geography highly.

Dr Maguire said the findings complemented sports research which had found that taking up an activity with low expectations affected the level of achievement. She suggested that single-sex preparation for field trips might give women a more positive view of what they could achieve, rather than comparing themselves to 19-year-old men. While the men enjoyed the physical challenge of the fieldwork, the women enjoyed being in a group, both academically and socially.

The college offered two residential field trips, one in the Alps and one in North Wales. While all the male students with children went to the Alps, half of the female students with children opted for the local trip because of home responsibilities. More than a third of the male students did not rate the trip's cost as important, compared to only 14 per cent of women.

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