Why Are Women Dominating Higher Education?

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REPORT Jessica Oxford & Anastasia Zarkos

If you’re reading this, there’s a 56% chance that you are female – and that’s only accounting for the student population.

University World News reports that the gender ratio between students is changing in favour of female attendance. As of 2007, across Australia, women have recorded 56% of the nearly one million university enrolments of domestic and international students each year. This significant increase in women attending university has been at a steady rise since 1982. Men had, effectively, ruled the university domain for the past one hundred and thirty five years.

Also noted is the fact that women are also enrolling in a wider array of subjects and degrees than those deemed as fundamentally ‘feminine’ in nature – this being teaching and nursing. Of significance, the boost in enrolments in agricultural, business and architectural studies has seen women fast overtaking male students to become the majority.

While reasons for this change have been speculated – including theories such as women believing that teachers are encouraging them to aim higher and that their friends are most likely destined for tertiary education – the fact of the matter is that women are seemingly dominating Australian universities. This sounds empowering and great for social progress but are women really reaping the benefits? In 2011 the median starting salary for female bachelor degree graduates was $2,000 less than males (ABS, 2012).

The expected benefits for those who complete higher education, filled with stressful exams and often laborious assignments, is a well paying profession that makes all that effort worthwhile. It should open up students’ job prospects or develop their knowledge on a particular subject. There is no doubt that this applies for women as well but their level of success seems to be measured in a different way. It seems that when discussing this topic, the conversation carries on to how this will affect the marriage status of a woman. In the studies conducted by social researchers, their focus seemed to be how a rise in educational levels would impact negatively on their relationship with men.

This is an ingrained social norm – women are seeking marriage. It transcends nations and cultures, so much so that Australia is drawing comparisons with Hong Kong and Singapore where, as Geoff Maslen of University World News, reports, “thousands of young women graduates cannot find a husband because less-educated Chinese men will not marry them.”

Maslen continues, “A highly educated class of ambitious young females now exists that in the past would have sought better qualified mates, men who earned more than they did. Today that group is sadly depleted… men traditionally have preferred wives with either less or the same amount of education as themselves.

“The proportions for women with no post-school qualifications are far lower and some researchers have concluded that well-qualified, high-income women are facing a situation where they have effectively educated themselves out of the marriage market.”

This conclusion, that those Australian women who are seeking a demanding career are not ‘achieving’, leaves out many extenuating factors – the rise of de facto relationships and individual choice to remain single, for example. What else is considered alarming by this report is that, according to some researchers, “nearly half the 175,000 or so degree-carrying women in the 25 to 29 age group do not have partners and a third of those aged 30 to 34 similarly lead single lives.”

There is no doubt that marriage and relationships, with possible child rearing, has a considerable impact on a person’s life that often results in a complete change. The important part to note is that it affects both genders. Marriage is not solely a female related issue but has been so entwined in the social psyche that the two are fused together and it becomes a tool to measure how a woman has achieved. Some of the biggest obstacles that are holding back women remain cultural but there are equal pressures on men for example to achieve and be the breadwinners as noted in 2011 by Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner. If we are going to make changes to gender stereotypes and cultural norms, women and men need to make changes together.