Have women scored a knockout over men?

Women are taking over the universities, according to the newspapers. But just because the majority of students are women, does this necessarily mean that women will eventually dominate the academic disciplines?

In 2009, women comprised 60 percent of the students at university and university college level. (Illustration photo: iStockphoto)

More and more women are pursuing a higher education. This is confirmed by new figures from Statistics Norway (SSB). While 3,011 women graduated in the 1997-1998 academic year after four years of university or university college studies, this number increased to 5,225 women in 2007-2008.

Sounding the alarm

For the first time ever, in the 2004-2005 academic year, more women than men completed a higher education, and in 2009 women comprised more than 60 percent of the students at university and university college level.

“With regard to higher education, all the study programmes have become more or less dominated by women with the exception of the technical fields,” said Per Olaf Aamodt, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU STEP), in his comments to Women in Science – Norway.

Time after time, this uneven gender distribution has hit the headlines. As early as 2003, the Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten announced “Women have taken over the universities”, and this year when Statistics Norway presented figures showing the same trend, the headline in the Internet newspaper Nettavisen declared “Women score a knockout over men” under a photo of a young female student.

Nettavisen also found cause to warn its readers about the new trend: “All statistics indicate that the female students will secure better jobs, earn higher incomes and enjoy better health than their male counterparts,” wrote the newspaper on 2 February of this year. But can this be true?

Linda Rustad believes that the higher education sector has become more gender balanced. (Photo: Marte Ericsson Ryste)

“No,” says Linda Rustad, Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions (UHR).

As the secretary for the Committee for Mainstreaming – Women in Science (the Kif committee), Rustad has helped to draw up several proposals for how gender equality perspectives can be better integrated into the university and university college sector. Now she believes that the debate about young men and women’s educational choices is in the process of being derailed.

Make different choices

“More women than men pursue a higher education, but if we look at those who study at the master’s level, the tendency is towards greater gender balance. There is no takeover by women as the media tend to portray it,” says Rustad.

“This is a crucial point in relation to the current discussion that asserts young men are no longer pursuing a higher education,” she continues.

Rustad thinks that newspapers draw conclusions too quickly, and points out that women still choose a different type of education than men. Even though women predominate at university colleges that offer studies in health and social care, the proportion of women is lower in university subjects such as physics, information science and political science.

“In essence, men choose fields and job markets that offer good pay, whereas women pursue studies qualifying them for work in the public sector, which often pays less,” says Rustad.

As a result, the overall higher proportion of women pursuing a higher education does not necessarily lead to higher salaries in the future.

Per Olaf Aamodt of NIFU STEP supports Rustad’s assertions. He says that more women than men pursue studies that qualify them to work in the public sector.

“Many more women than men choose a higher education targeted at professions central to the welfare state, such as teachers, pre-school teachers and health and social care workers, where there are very few men. These fields offer a secure labour market, but they are hardly a financially rewarding educational choice,” says Aamodt.

Men choose good pay

Of the more male-dominated study programmes, Aamodt says that technical subjects remain “highly male dominated” and that mathematics and natural sciences are “somewhat male dominated”. His data are also supported by figures from Statistics Norway. In the 2007-2008 academic year, women comprised more than 80 percent of those who completed a four-year programme in education or teacher training. The comparable figure for men in the natural sciences, skilled trades and technical subjects was 65 percent. For the technical subjects only, men comprised an even higher percentage.

Men predominate in mathematics and the natural sciences. (Illustration: iStockphoto).

Aamodt emphasizes, however, that young women do not necessarily make “wrong” choices.

“We could just as well look at the problem from a different perspective and ask why more men don’t choose welfare-oriented studies,” he says.

He also asks whether women perhaps have more to gain from pursuing a higher education than men do.

“Maybe men have more avenues to higher pay than via higher education,” he says.

What about research?

If we look more closely at who takes the longest courses of study, the ratio of women to men is also reversed. According to Statistics Norway, 55 percent of those who complete doctoral degrees are men, and it is still men who dominate in the highest academic positions.

We can therefore not assume that the predominance of women at the student level will lead automatically to more women in top academic positions, Rustad believes.

“There are more women at the associate professor level now than there were 20 years ago, but the percentage of women at the professor level is increasing very slowly,” she continues.

According to Rustad, the potential to recruit women to professorships is much greater than the trend suggests. If we don’t take specific action, it will be a very long time before we achieve gender balance, she says.

Per Olaf Aamodt is a researcher at NIFU STEP. (Photo: NIFU STEP)

“Those who say we should let nature take its course have all the time in the world. They cannot be especially concerned about hiring the most talented researchers either.”

“Although the majority of students are women, it is not necessarily the case that a majority of the female students will go into research,” she explains.

Therefore, the fact that there are more women than men at the student level does not guarantee that the academic fields will be dominated by women in the future, Rustad believes. She thinks many people are now drawing hasty conclusions on the basis of figures from Statistics Norway.

“We need to distinguish between those who are studying in order to get a job, for example in the public sector, and those who are studying in order to conduct research. This means that we must distinguish between the number of undergraduate and master’s students and the number of PhD candidates.”

Translated by Connie Stultz.