When we reflect upon how far we’ve come in terms of equality of opportunity between the sexes, one of the first thing that comes to mind is women’s place in higher education. For centuries, attending institutions of higher education was indisputably a male pursuit. Historically, universities were founded by men, with the purpose of furthering skills that only were only useful to the masculine societal role. The first British women to access university did so in 1868. A century later, the gender balance within these institutions steadily began to shift. The pace of change increased in the early 1990s. In the middle of that decade, the number of female students overtook the number of male students for the first time. Since then, the gap has continued to grow. According to a study by UCAS in 2015, an 18-year-old woman was 35 per cent more likely to enter higher education than an 18-year-old man. This meant that 36,000 fewer 18-year-old males entered university that year than if the rates for men and women has been equal. In 2020, the higher education participation level for young women has reached 56.6%, compared to only 44.1% for young men. It could be argued that in regards to the monumental waves that the feminist movement aimed to create in the promotion of educational opportunities for women these statistics are the very definition of progress. That said, inequalities in something as fundamental as education should be recognized as a cause for concern regardless of the direction in which the inequality points.
The disparity between the sexes in education does not begin at university level. Many studies across the past decade that investigate school performance have detected that boys are more likely than girls to underachieve at school level. According a study done by the University of Bristol, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have fallen behind by the time they start primary school. The research found that 25% of boys were unable to listen to simple instructions and answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions in comparison with 14% of girls. This might be due to the fact that girls’ brains are quicker to develop as some research indicates, yet this disparity in performance that begins at such an early age continues throughout education in regards to both attendance and success. By the time that teenagers reach sixth form, girls are already significantly outnumbering boys, as well as achieving higher grades on average. This has been explained by the fact that school-age boys have been found to have a less enthusiastic attitude towards schoolwork. According to research into boy’s underachievement for the Higher Education Policy Institute, boys are 8 percent more likely than girls to regard school as a waste of time. They also tend to spend over one hour less per week on homework, and they’re less likely to read outside of school. The likelihood of boys to underperform in comparison to their female counterparts from a young age, though potentially connected to slower development, could have a knock-on effect to higher education due to an acceptance of a lower standard, and the failure to form useful habits, such as a more diligent work ethic.
This gender-based trend in higher education is not just the case in the UK. In 2021, an article published by The Atlantic entitled ‘Colleges have a Guy Problem’ highlighted how American colleges and universities now enroll roughly six women for every four men, the largest female-male gender gap in the history of higher education. Countries all over the world are seeing an increase in female applications. Panama, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Cuba, Jamaica and Brunei were some of the examples highlighted in a Study International article, as countries that have some of the highest female to male ratios in higher education. The fact that the increase in female attendance at higher education in comparison with their male counterparts is an increasingly global phenomenon arguably negates the role of western cultural factors in favor of an argument that suggests an issue with the nature of modern education, in terms of the way it better nurtures the use of traits more commonly found in girls and women.
It has also been suggested that we should not ignore the factor of financial incentive. Men continue to dominate the student demographics in subjects such aa engineering and technology, physical sciences, computer science, architecture and mathematics. These subjects, long-term staples of the university curriculum, have recently been joined by subjects which train for female dominated career fields, such as teaching and nursing. These professions only as of recently require a university degree as a standard entry point. The fact that the number of women that need to attend university in order to access their chosen career path is increasing could partially explain the increase. This could be significant when coupled with the fact that female graduates earn three times as much as women without a degree, while male graduates earn around twice as much as other men. Women not only need to attend high education to secure a wider variety of female dominated career fields, but are much less likely to earn a comparable salary without a university degree, providing a stronger motivation than for their male counterparts. By contrast, the rise of apprenticeships and other pathways into male-dominated fields could be granting more men with an opportunity preferable to university. The question remains, are these trends a cause for concern, or simply reflective of a changing economic landscape in which male and female dominated industries incentivize differing pathways towards entering the job market?