More women than men studying at university is not some problem waiting to be solved



Clare Patterson

‘The gender gap at universities: where are all the men?’ begins an article in the Guardian from 2013. Most universities now have more female students than male; in 2010 the ratio was around 55% female, 45% male, a trend which has continued in the five years since, with undergraduate programmes at some universities taking twice as many female students as male ones. The causes of this phenomenon are unclear (girls outperforming boys in school exams are considered a possible factor). Some responses to this seem to view it as an issue to be addressed, suggesting encouraging more working class boys in GCSE and sixth form classes to apply for University. I can’t help but feel these concerns are unnecessary.

Encouragement for working class teenagers to consider university is a brilliant, vital idea; our university is the probably the second most middle class place in, beaten only by the Waitrose atop Byres Road, the ‘Glasgow Uni accent’ alone is evidence of the disproportionately middle class crowd at uni, but this encouragement should be given regardless of gender. The disproportionate stock of working class students at elite universities is a universal truth at this point, and definitely needs remedying, but it makes no sense to only encourage half that group on the basis of gender.

It’s also worth noting that many ‘skilled’ jobs which don’t require a degree are in male dominated fields; construction, mechanics, the military, policing etc. relying instead upon on-the-job training or apprenticeships. Of course there are women who work in these fields, but for young men there may be a sense that there are more jobs which don’t require a degree available to them. Add to that the increase in a ‘minimum requirement’ of a degree for many jobs, and women with no interest in the male dominated fields of often physical work may now need a degree for jobs which only recently began asking for them; degrees which women of previous generations would not have needed.

I find it strange that this statistic is seen as an unfair advantage young women now have over young men. Women are 9% less likely to get a graduate job after university than men, and a study by Oxford University found gender to be the strongest determining factor for wages six months after graduating. A woman with the same degree classification as a man earns up to £8000 less. The notorious ‘wage gap’ persists, with women making 14% less than men on average. Despite the majority of undergraduates being female, the majority of lecturers and professors at universities are still male. I do not believe male students need to worry too much yet.

Taking issue with, and trying to remedy, one statistic in which women come out ahead ignores the fact that across society, in almost all situations, women still fall behind. The focus on this single statistic paints a misleading picture, but the reaction that views it with concern seems particularly odd. While there are initiatives to encourage more women to study in certain fields such as science, maths and engineering, there aren’t many campaigns to close the wage gap or to encourage more women in high-level academia. Cause of the gender disparities in both university degrees and in wages are somewhat ambiguous, with many theories but no single, irrefutable cause, yet the wage gap is often assumed to be down to women ‘choosing different careers’ or ‘being less ambitious’ – in essence the wage gap, and indeed more instances in society where women come up short, are seen as the natural order of things; women’s brains are wired differently, women are ‘more nurturing’ and so put children before careers. When women excel, however, the assumption doesn’t seem to be that a higher percentage of women than men are academically gifted or motivated; it is assumed that men are falling behind because of an unidentified problem that must to be rectified. The reasons behind both are likely complex and multifaceted, but we seem to assume that women are less successful because they ‘just are’, while male shortcomings must be the work of some external force.

This majority of female undergraduates is a fairly recent phenomenon, and it will be interesting to see its effects on both the wage gap and the presence of women in academia in the coming years. Despite majorities in certain areas such as this, true gender equality is still some way away, but as the presence of women at universities increases, we slowly move towards it. This small victory for women in education should not be a cause for concern, but for celebration of progress that continues to be made.