There has been much fuss made recently over a VUW Institute of Policy study on gender participation at university. The study claims there will be negative implications for men who will be “left behind” as women are racing ahead” in their university studies. But the study seems to come from the position that men will somehow lose out in the long run if there are higher numbers of women at university. Are people concerned about women out-performing men at university, or out-participating men? The tertiary sector is a complex one, and a thorough analysis of gender participation at universities requires an investigation into perceived and real opportunities to study, structural barriers to participation, social attitudes of both the university community and the wider community, university hierarchies and power structures (who has it, how did they get it), and government policy. It is clear however that despite women seemingly out-performing and indeed out-participating, there is still evidence of sexism, structural barriers and gender discrimination that result in male graduates coming out on top.
For sure, enrolment figures show that women are currently enrolling in tertiary institutions in marginally higher numbers: (57% in 2004 according the Ministry of Education’s Profiles and Trends 2004) which is a figure that has increased from 52% in 1994 but over the last four years has levelled out. Specifically for universities, women at undergraduate bachelor’s level are 60% of all enrolments. An increase in women’s participation is not something to be problematised; instead we should celebrate it as a signal that changes are occurring to give women more of an opportunity to study. We can see this in the changes in demographics of women at university. For example, numbers of women over 40 going into tertiary education has trebled since 1994. In addition, Maori and Pasifika women are also starting to participate in tertiary education at higher numbers than before, although mostly at sub-degree level. Barriers to education that previously existed are slowly being broken down, childcare facilities and subsidies are more accessible, distance study is a viable option, and women are also more likely to study part-time than men.
However, this does not mean that there are no longer barriers to participation, or that equality in fact exists within the tertiary sector. Women are still predominantly studying in traditional women’s subject areas: education, teaching, nursing, and social sciences. This in itself is not a bad thing, but coupled with the fact that these areas in the workforce are traditionally the lowest paid, and under the government’s Performance Based Research Funding model are the areas which draw the lowest funding, we can see feminised disciplines that are undervalued and underpaid. Compare this with male dominated disciplines such as architecture, engineering, science, and technology, which draw the most government funding, the highest salaries on graduation, and are considered core industries for economic growth; we can see a wider (and less rosy) picture of women’s participation at university and its outcomes. This is indicative that barriers still exist in the traditionally male fields of study and there is still work to be done in increasing women’s participation in those areas.
Another key issue with women’s participation, closely related to the first, is employment and pay equity. I already briefly mentioned male disciplines drawing higher salaries, but this problem is endemic to our society. The official line from the Department of Labour is that there is currently a gender pay gap of 86%, that is women earn on average 86% of what men earn (hourly). This is based on March 2005 industry statistics. However last year’s Statistics NZ Income Survey released in October showed that women actually only earn 82% of what men earn, based on a survey of 15,000 households nationwide. Women are also three times more likely to work part-time than men, and are expected to shoulder most of the household and caring responsibilities still (and so have a lessened earning capacity). With regards to university students, directly on graduation women can expect to earn less than men; the average gender pay gap for those with a tertiary qualification is 83.5%. The NZ Vice Chancellors Committee reported that the average male graduate’s salary working full time is $50,388 and average female graduate’s salary working full time is $42,112 – an $8,000 difference. There is a gender pay gap in every university subject area on graduation, for example a female commerce student can expect to earn only 75.5% of what a male commerce student does on graduation, $43,588 compared to $57,740. Just because there are more women at university does not mean there are equal outcomes in the workforce.
One final unequal outcome is the number of women in leadership or management positions, both in the tertiary sector and the wider community. The Census on Women’s Participation came out recently and showed shocking statistics when it comes to women’s participation, not only in high academic positions within the university, but on boards of directors, partners in law firms, state sector statutory bodies and crown companies. Women only hold 16.91% of senior academic positions at our eight universities showing that high numbers of female students do not lead to high numbers of female academics. Only 13.77% of professors nationwide are female – and at some universities like Auckland this number is actually dropping. Women only make up 47% of the wider workforce, and their participation at higher levels is much worse. For example, only 19.2% of major newspapers’ editors are women, 24.2% of all judges are women, and 18.9% of mayors around New Zealand are women.
It’s important to remember that widespread participation by women in tertiary education is still relatively new. We are only about one generation into women studying at tertiary level (think about the choices your mother had), and many structural barriers still do exist within the tertiary system that women constantly come up against. Perhaps it may not be as obvious at undergrad level, but once women hit postgraduate study and enter the workforce, sexism starts to show itself. The inquiry should not therefore be about women out-performing or out-participating men, but why this is not leading to equal outcomes in postgraduate study and the workforce. This is the key factor being ignored in the discourse about women’s university participation.