Gender and tertiary education: Is it useful to talk about male disadvantage?
Internationally there is much research showing that achievement within the education sector is a key determinant of positive labour market outcomes as well as supporting many other areas of wellbeing.
Authors: Paul Callister, Frances Leather and Jill Holt
Date: September 2008
Internationally there is much research showing that achievement within the education sector is a key determinant of positive labour market outcomes as well as supporting many other areas of wellbeing. Against a backdrop of overall strong and very positive improvements in educational participation and achievement, there is evidence that a gendered 'education transition' has taken place in New Zealand. The transition in tertiary education is demonstrated by higher rates of participation and achievement of women relative to men, particularly among the Māori and Pacific communities. Does this transition matter? Certainly in the past higher participation and achievement by men prompted much concern about the need for women to improve their relative outcomes. While now there is some concern expressed about boys’ achievement within schooling, the same level of disquiet is not being expressed about the relative underperformance of men in tertiary education. In this sector concerns focus on overall Māori and Pacific under-representation, and there is still attention given to female under-representation in areas such as engineering or building. Is this because the gaps that favour women are minor differences or, in fact, are they new and important disparities? We find there is no objective measure that can tell us when gender gaps are important. However, historically gaps of the size currently found in tertiary education, but in favour of men, did cause concern. And currently similar sized gaps, again in favour of men, in areas such as pay continue to be high on public policy agendas. Further complicating this analysis of gaps is whether absolute gains to both men and women are considered, or whether simply relative positions are examined.
Overall, the paper suggests that much of the gender analysis undertaken within the tertiary education sector, as well as within much of the wider policy world, remains based on a premise of female disadvantage or, alternatively, focuses on very specific areas of female disadvantage while often ignoring parallel male disadvantage. Focusing on one part of a binary population, without looking at the other part, has the potential to create new inequalities. We suggest that this needs to change to allow a more sophisticated analysis of gender and ethnic gaps. This includes a requirement to consider the growing heterogeneity of choices and outcomes for women and men, as well as identifying and overcoming the remaining constraints on choice for both men and women.