Recent statistics published by the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) suggest that young women are now around a third more likely to enter university than their male peers. This has led to a rise in university activities targeting young men, with almost a third of UK universities making efforts to close the growing gender gap through outreach schemes.
While many universities are taking action, however, UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook says there’s been a “deafening policy silence” on the issue, with most gender-based campaigns continuing to focus on areas in which women – rather than men – are the disadvantaged group.
A growing global trend
The UK’s higher education gender gap is certainly not unique; it’s part of a picture being increasingly repeated around the world. The 2015 Global Gender Gap Index shows women now outnumbering men in university enrolments in 97 countries – though men are still more likely to form the majority of skilled workers, and even more likely to dominate in leadership positions.
While the fact that women are catching up with – and overtaking – men in higher education enrolments is cause for celebration, there are also grounds for concern. In the UK, research suggests white boys from low-income families in disadvantaged areas are especially likely to fall behind, as the group least likely to complete A-levels. And although female university students are now in a majority in many countries, a significant gender gap remains in many individual subjects.
Enrolments reflect gender stereotypes
In the UK, only three of the 180 subjects considered by UCAS are classed as equally balanced. The rest are dominated either by women or men, largely reflecting traditional gender-based stereotypes and associations.
So, for instance, the UCAS figures show female students claiming their largest majority in nursing, followed by psychology, social work, education and design. They also outnumber men in English, philosophy, history, law and biology. Male students’ greatest majority is in computer science, followed by mechanical engineering, sports science, electrical engineering and economics.
Gender-based recruitment targets?
Just as many universities set targets for percentages of international students, or students from lower-income backgrounds or minority groups, should they also set goals for more balanced gender representation? Achieving more equally balanced enrolments – overall, and in specific subjects – could feed into more equally balanced workplaces, the continued breakdown of gender-based stereotyping, more genuinely equal opportunities, and stronger future workforces.
From the focus groups we’ve been running with prospective students over the past 12 months, it’s also clear that many students consider the demographics of the university community they’ll be joining. As well as valuing the chance to learn alongside and from an internationally diverse and talented group of peers, at least some students say they also consider gender balance. This suggests an opportunity for universities to stand out, especially if they succeed in closing the gender gap in programs where the divide is now at its widest.
If your university marketing team is already engaged in gender-focused campaigns, or if you’re keen to find out more about approaches to this issue worldwide, you may be interested in the upcoming QS in Conversation event. Focusing on the topic of advancing female leadership through higher education, this three-day conference will be held in Milan, Italy, on 1-3 February 2016. We have 10 free places to give away (one per institution) – contact us now to request your free place.