The equality of the sexes has taken massive strides over recent decades. Feminism has ensured education and opportunities for women is as attainable as for their male counterparts. While not void of its challenges, women – predominantly in developed countries – have a great deal of opportunities that did not exist years prior.
Yet while girls may be excelling academically, boys seemed to have reached a stagnant point in their educational achievements. In some parts of the world, boys’ academic efforts have even decreased.
Recent NAPLAN results have found that boys are significantly lagging behind girls in reading, writing, punctuation, grammar and spelling. In an effort to boost boys’ academic achievements and stimulate their desire to read, schools across Victoria have attempted to create a solution. Located in Rowville, Park Ridge Primary School has refurbished their library space with books about extreme sports, elite athletes, cars and graphic novels. While their efforts and intentions are admirable, they are simultaneously perpetuating the gender norms and stereotypes that feminism has attempted to eradicate for decades.
Currently in Australia, boys are less likely to complete Year 12 than girls, and more boys are expelled and suspended. Consequently, a significantly larger proportion of women are finishing university than men. In a study conducted in March 2016, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that of the six million students who graduated from a higher education institution in OECD countries, 58 percent were women. 64 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to women were in education, humanities and social sciences. By contrast, only 31 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded were in sciences and engineering.
Women’s representation is particularly lacking in IT, engineering, and architecture degrees. While men are underrepresented in education, health and creative courses. This suggests the ever-present notion of conforming to gender norms and what are seen as typically ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ degrees.
In Australia specifically, 45,000 more women completed tertiary qualifications than men in 2014. The education gender gap has now widened to almost 20 percent, and women account for 63 percent of the increases in graduates. Although a phenomenal stride for women in education, it poses the question as to why men are not obtaining similar academic achievements.
Interestingly, when comparing education statistics over a number of years, women’s academic enrolments are gaining traction, while men’s are remaining stagnant. A study conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that in the United States in 2012, 71 percent of girls who graduated from high school went on to college, whereas only 61 percent of boys did. In 1984, 63 percent of girls who were high school graduates continued to college, and 61 percent of boys did. Ultimately, while the statistics of girls pursuing higher education has increased, boys’ academic achievements have remained the same.
Feminism predominantly focuses on equal representation for women, and ensuring the same access to opportunities as men. However, the gender gap also highlights that male underrepresentation in education is an equity issue.
Sociologist Jayanti Owens, a professor at Brown University, conducted a study examining the consequences of behavioural issues on educational achievements. Her study, published in 2016 in the Sociology of Education, found a correlated link between behavioural problems, discipline, and long term academic results.
The findings of the study discovered that boys are punished significantly harsher in primary school, due to the stigma surrounding boys being ‘naughtier.’ As a result, “implicit stereotypes may lead to increased grade retention and disproportionately harsh discipline, such as school suspension or expulsion, which in turn are associated with lowered achievement and, ultimately, attainment.” Thus, the education system’s treatment of boys has a detrimental impact on their education.
Owens contends that “many school environments are not conducive to boys’ success…this points to the need for schools and families to help boys who want to complete college learn strategies to successfully navigate key educational transitions that currently thwart college completion.”
With regards to recent changes for women in education, the study found that “at the same time these social shifts have benefitted girls, other shifts have potentially stymied boys.”
There is a pressing urge to address the inequity in education for boys in order to ensure equal opportunities and academic results for both men and women.
Some universities across Australia are striving to address the gender gap issue. The Australian Catholic University (ACU) has the highest percentage of female students in the country, with over 70 percent due to its large focus on health related and education courses. This further reflects the high female enrolment in courses such as teaching, nursing and midwifery. On the other end of the higher education spectrum, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has the lowest percentage of female students enrolled yet has the highest amount of students in both undergraduate and postgraduate engineering courses.
In February this year, the University of Sydney created a new $27,000 vet science scholarship which favours men. This is largely due to the recent change to the veterinary profession, which is now female dominated. The scholarship has been largely criticised by members of the industry as sexist. Alternatively, UNSW, RMIT, Monash, the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, and many others are offering scholarships for women in engineering and science. These have not received the same level of criticism.