We hear a lot about the gender gap in society. How, for example, women are still underpaid in comparison to men; how women can still be under-represented in senior jobs or important public roles, such as Members of Parliament. Hear the expression ‘gender gap’, and one assumes it’s women who are coming off worst.
However, in the world of university admissions, it works the other way: the number of female students has outnumbered the number of male students for many years. In the latest figures released during January by Ucas (the universities’ clearing house), that gender gap has widened again. In admissions for 2014, there were nearly 58,000 more women than men. In two-thirds of subject areas, women occupy over half the student places. This is hardly surprising when you go back an educational stage to performance at school: in GCSE and A-level results, girls outperform boys across the grade scale. And in the top range, in 2013 for instance, girls received A* or A grades at GCSE in 25% of exams sat, compared with around 18% of boys’ exams.
Of course, we know that there are areas where male students still dominate: the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). There the gender bias works the other way, with around 20,000 more male students than female in engineering, and about 17,000 more men than women studying computer science. Huge efforts are being made to improve female take-up in these subjects at school. But the scales are not tipped towards boys right across the spectrum of scientific subjects. Girls also have their area of science success: in biology, female applicants dominate university entrance. Perhaps more surprisingly, given the prevailing view that women go for easier subjects, they also outstrip men in medicine and dentistry, where getting a university place requires the best grades and is the most competitive. In 2014, 5,000 women, compared with 3,800 men, were accepted onto university courses in these subjects. Female applicants also dominate in law, traditionally a subject pursued by ambitious young men who want to earn large amounts of money!
The implications of female success at university
All this raises the question of why boys perform so relatively poorly at school. Debate recently has focused on white males from working class backgrounds, who underachieve significantly compared with other groups. But at a more general level, boys just don’t seem as good at applying themselves to school work, unless they are among those whose imagination is seized by scientific subjects. If I were choosing a school for a son, I’d be looking at the results for boys across the board: how effectively are they encouraged if they excel in literature or art?
But there’s another vexing question: if women are taking up so many more university places, and coming out the other end with degrees, why are they still underperforming in the workplace? Yes, they have to break from work if they want to have children, and some choose to take years rather than months away from their careers. But is, somehow, all that educational attainment being wasted? One might argue no, if it means women are passing on their knowledge and the value of education to their children. But there are still cultural and social barriers blocking women from potentially high-achieving careers which our society has failed to address.