The gender gap in the British universities-No laughing matter

Ten years ago I wrote a newsp aper article about the gender gap in further education at the universities in the United Kingdom.Having come across a report on this topic on an education site citing new data just a short while ago, I  sought it out and reread it. I was astonished to see that what  I had written  would be  as relevant  today as it was then. What has happened to the gender gap? Well, it would be safe to say that the gender gap is still alive and well. In fact, it  certainly seems more pronounced than it was when I personally became aware of it at that time.The data  based on student numbers  provided by UCAS  illustrates conclusively that more girls than ever are entering the further education system  outnumbering the boys more and more each passing academic year. When we consider that each academic year brings with it actual  numbers and hence a reliable ratio, it would be fair to say that there is no room for scepticism  here. The figures speak for themselves. According to an additional data put forward  by the Higher Education Statistic Authority (HESA) in 2015, the gap between the female and the male was a record 9.2%, the former outnumbering the latter in almost two thirds  of undergraduate degree subjects. A trend that is showing no signs of change. It has been suggested that girls born in 2016 are  three times  more likely to go onto higher education than the boys born in the same year if this trend continues.

It was something my daughter had said, rather passionately I might add, back than that had prompted me to find out more about the gender imbalance amongst the undergraduates, to research and to write about it.”There is no point in applying to a university where the girls outnumber the boys!” had been her  reaction to something that she had been reading. She was taking her A’levels that year and like many of her peers was completely preoccupied with her UCAS application. Her approach to the process of selecting the universities that she would finally apply to was such that she wanted to  know every detail she could possibly find. She studiously looked up numerous league tables provided by many an authority /newspaper, endless lists, reviews, brochures… rankings  based on academia, rankings based on the quality of student life…location, climate, cultural environment..the lot. She had come across some statistics about the percentages of girls and boys at different universities . I  confess that my first reaction had been to tease her about it and to laugh. It had reminded me of the time years back when we, our sixth form class had asked our educational councillor for some information about the gender ratios of the universities we were intending to apply to. The poor man had become flustered and eventually  had asked us to behave ourselves and  to concentrate on the real issues.We hadn’t meant to be mischievous. We were on a ‘ask questions about anything and everything’ frenzy. It was most likely triggered by our anxiety. It was a daunting  time. We were making decisions that would  affect  the rest of  our lives. Well it was the late 70s. Teachers  were at the receiving end of many a question however silly  it might have been deemed. Remember that  we did not have  internet then. Libraries and our teachers were our lifelines of information. We didn’t have so much information at our fingertips. Waiting to receive a university prospectus by post was quite a deal.

So what is all this about the gender gap in universities? The statistics show that three decades or so ago it was the male undergraduates who outnumbered their female counterparts. Gradually this seems to have  equalised. Looking back to my own studies as an undergraduate in the early 80s at university  I don’t remember this  ever being an issue or ever being discussed despite the fact that we were curious about it before we had got there. I  certainly cannot recall any gender imbalance in my own degree course nor on campus. However one thing  I  do remember was the crowd of male students in the coffee bar we the  Biochemistry students at the  Chemistry Department shared with the adjacent departments of Physics and Engineering. It seemed as if there was a complete absence of girls but admittedly it was nothing out of the ‘norm’. Girls were not simply interested in those subjects. Even if they were interested, they would not get jobs in those fields that easily. Those subjects were not suitable for them…Or so they were led to believe.

Looking at the bigger picture many a question comes to mind. Why the fuss? Why should this issue be of any concern? What measures  are taken or should be taken to counteract the widening gap? What about the universities? What is their stance? What factors are in play?  Is this an economical issue, a social one  or simply an educational matter? What is the implication of the findings that white males of more disadvantaged families are the least likely group to go onto further education? Could the whole thing be a reflection of the ratio of female to male in the population?

Firstly, lets eliminate the population argument. The higher number of females cannot be explained by the  overall population counts since the  population of  males of university age is greater than the females. Has this been the case over the last three decades? More or less so. What about the general attitude  of girls and boys towards their studies from an early age? Girls in general are doing much better at primary and secondary levels. They respond to academic encouragement more enthusiastically. Educational Psychologists  point out that the level of maturity of a pre-university female is greater than that of the same age  male. Consequently the girls are  more aware of  the opportunities education further than their secondary education can provide  for them. The role of the parents has also been  contributory. It is not difficult to see that those parents who have themselves been university educated and more likely than not have experienced the advantages of it first hand would aspire the same for their children irrespective of the gender. The  tradition of boys following their fathers into university days have long gone.  Now there are both  girls  and boys following  both their mothers and fathers  into university.  Girls  are definitely in the equation. In effect what we see here is that as  the society embraces gender equality, the attitudes towards education for females has been changing and the status of the female university students shifting  from being the minority to majority.

The correlation between the  gender gap in the student numbers and  the gender imbalance in the degree subjects  may not be immediately evident. I think it is an important factor and should not be underestimated. Girls may outnumber boys overall  but they still lack behind in fields such as mathematics, engineering and computer sciences, the biggest gap being identified in the latter. Latest figures show that there are as much as 15000 more male students than females in Computer Sciences. Mechanical, Electrical,  Automotive  Engineering follow the same trend showing that these areas still remain traditionally male. Females on the other hand dominate  in Medicine, Social work, Design, Biological Sciences, Law, English just to mention  a few of many a subject in which they exceed in numbers.  One of the first steps that needs to be taken is to tackle this  imbalance and take measures to eliminate the gender gap in at the very worse the majority of the  subjects. It is never going to be 50:50. Then again it doesn’t need to be so clear and cut as nothing ever is in education matters. Girls and boys should be made aware of  and be informed about the careers  available to them in the subjects that are not viewed (unfortunately) as their forte. Engineering could easily be a preferred option for a female student just as it is for a male student. Languages could be the  choice for a male student as much as his female peers. This can only happen if they were encouraged to become aware of  their talents and interests as they develop academically and socially throughout their secondary education. There are many schools and countless teachers who are doing this brilliantly but it would not be wrong to say that some fall short as far  as going that extra mile to show the pupils, boys and girls, all the possibilities  and to make them realise their potential. Imagine a society in which  each sector had its fair share of both the genders. A society where whichever  gender you are does not have an effect on your chosen field of study and consequently your career. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

The above just touches issue of  the gender gap in the universities. There are many other influences to consider. The socio-economical, social, cultural factors. Recruitment ‘habits’ of specialized sectors and industries. The gender pay gap. By all means lets deal with the matter increasing  the number of males entering universities  but make sure that it is  sustainable and fair. Positive discrimination on the part of the universities at the admissions stage, to favour one or the other gender would not cause an outcry since it would be more or less undetectable but be totally unfair. I am not saying that the universities are doing this, I am just hoping that they would not even  consider it. Most are reluctant to admit that a gender gap  problem really exists, adamant that the situation is being exaggerated . Yet target marketing is getting more widespread. Subtle changes on  many a university website, prospectus have already been observed by  the eagle-eyed. According to one American college just the removing the pastel colours and making it more masculine with bold colours as well as including more photographs of sports have led to an increase in the  number of male applications significantly. Here you go…

So as a UCAS applicant ticks the female or male slot on the application form that tick has  the power of changing the society as a whole. Lets hope that  the day comes when everyone has the opportunity to benefit from higher education , to study subjects that they are really interested in and have talents for and to be confident that on graduation get jobs with equal status and equal pay irrespective of gender and background.

Utopic… maybe. Impossible…not.

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