Addressing the university gender gap

    With growing female enrolment, universities are wondering how to attract men

    The university gender gap is approximately 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male in Canada. (Photo by Sol Kauffman/The Martlet)
    The university gender gap is approximately 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male in Canada. (Photo by Sol Kauffman/The Martlet)

    VICTORIA (CUP) — When Cory Dohlen entered the first year of his primary education practicum, he was shocked that there were five other men in his class of 29 — not because there were so few boys, but because there were so many.

    Dohlen’s feeling has seemingly become the norm in universities worldwide. The increasing trend of girls outnumbering boys in post-secondary institutions is not abnormal.

    Female enrolment in Canada has been steadily increasing over the years, sitting at 58 per cent in 2008-2009 according to Statistics Canada.

    This trend is escalated by an increasing number of males dropping out of universities worldwide. Eder explains that the exact number is difficult to track because there is no way of concluding whether it is a leave of absence or a more permanent decision.

    Jamie Cassels, vice-president academic at the University of Victoria, believes there’s no answer for this phenomenon.

    “For almost 10 years, it’s been like that: A female population that is at about 60 per cent versus 40 per cent for males. And it varies. It’s interesting that it’s not getting worse. The question for me is, is it even a problem? If it is a problem, are there barriers and problems at the university level or is it happening somewhere else?”

    One theory suggests the gap between males and females begins in elementary school due to the fact that the vast majority of elementary teachers are female, and the mentoring position teachers have at such a young age.

    “If you look at the [gender divide] of teachers in secondary schools, it’s roughly 50-50,” explained Cassels, whereas in elementary schools, males make up approximately 20 per cent of the teaching staff nationwide.

    In Dohlen’s primary education program, only 20 of the 140 students were male.

    Cassels believes social values and milieus are what influence children to attend university.

    “The most important determinant of whether or not a student goes to university is based on what is talked about around the dining room table — essentially, social values,” he said. The second most important, according to Cassels, is the students’ second home — school.

    “Those images of what you’re going to do, most of the literature shows, gets fixed in your head in late elementary and middle schools. By the time you’re in high school, you pretty well know what pathway you’re on. So if gendered messages are happening in elementary school that’s where it’s most likely to be influential,” said Cassels.

    Some experts suggest that the solution to this gap is bringing in more male teachers. Based on his own personal experience, Dohlen agrees.

    “Sometimes, in the courses I had to take for the program, the instructor would refer to the teacher as ‘she,’ as in ‘this is what she would be doing in the classroom,’” he said. “So the program’s a little more biased that way, because it caters to the majority.”

    A female-dominated education program is a concern of Cassels.

    “Teaching is female-oriented and that means a lot of boys don’t have role models in the education system. They lose motivation to go further,” he explained.

    Jo-Anne Lee, a women’s studies professor, doesn’t believe bringing more males into the education system will change the gender gap.

    “Why is education considered a female occupation? We have to address the gender bias in education, which reflects the gender bias in society at large,” Lee explained. “Looking after young kids is seen to be an essential female nature. I think we need to look at popular culture and the messages of popular culture and masculinity.”

    Lee explained that while these constructions of gender are at play in our society, the gender of elementary teachers doesn’t matter.

    “So what if we put men in primary education? They will become feminized in elementary school — they’re not seen to be ‘real guys’ because ‘real guys’ don’t do that. There’s a culture of masculinity in our culture that tells boys that it’s okay to be jocks, but men today are rewarded for their brawn and not their brain power, at least in high school.”

    Lee said men in elementary education will be pressured to conform to the dominant image of that field.

    “If we don’t address the context in encouraging guys to teach in lower grades, putting guys in that situation won’t change anything.”

    However, Lee further emphasizes the gender gap is not the biggest problem facing universities and society as a whole.

    Lee notes that in Canada, women are still paid less than men for the same job, which she says is a prominent issue in the education system as a whole.

    Only 15 per cent of the top 13 Canadian universities have a female president and 20 per cent of the full-time professors are women.

    “If you look at these statistics, it’s very shocking,” said Lee.

    Affirmative action programs are a common solution to the gender gap found in universities. To combat the concern, the University of Victoria’s engineering program does have a student recruitment program where attracting women is at the top of the agenda. Cassels is clear that this does not include “preferential admission policies or categories” for women, but rather encouragement to enter the engineering department.

    “I think it takes a long time to even develop a social consensus that [the gender gap] is even a problem,” Cassels said. “Once it’s recognized as a problem, it takes a while to develop a social consensus required to do fairly bold things.”

    In October 2009, University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, a south Asian female, stated in an interview that there is a gender problem in universities and that she would be an advocate for young white males.

    Cassels, however, says it can be risky to be at the forefront of social change.

    “I think the gender gap will emerge [as a problem] and we’re getting to the point of saying it’s something we should be worried about, but we’re fairly far back in the cue having the social science knowledge as to what to do about it.”

    As for Dohlen, he is no longer in the elementary school education program and is currently pursuing a sociology degree.

    “Being a role model for young boys would be motivation to step into that position,” he said. “But if you no longer want to do it then you’re not going to be a good teacher or role model.”


    1. The problem is this strange societal stima that everyone should go to university.

      Not everyone has to go to university. You don't have to go to university to be a welder or pipe-fitter, both of which are very well paying jobs.

      There is an extreme shortage of tradespeople in this country and that is not solved by funneling more people into university that do not belong there.


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