Gender Differences in Academic Pursuits and Career Outcomes

By: Kelsey Sunstrum

Soon students across Canada will be accepting offers of admission to universities, colleges and trade schools. Young women are considering their futures carefully, making decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.

How young women are guided towards their futures influences these important choices. In the October 2013 issue, American Cosmopolitan included an article about women and postsecondary education. While it seems positive that women’s magazines are offering more in-depth, relevant advice, this article takes a different direction.

The article, entitled “Working the Ratio” focuses almost exclusively on how to choose the best school (or city, or profession) to find a mate. It is saddening that despite women’s enormous contributions to academia, their participation is downplayed. Instead, women are assumed to be more preoccupied with their chances of romantic, not academic, success. This messaging perpetuates the gender divide still present in post-secondary institutions, particularly in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, at the graduate and doctorate levels, and in faculty.

Educational Attainment

Women have made tremendous gains in terms of educational attainment, and certainly have much to celebrate. Currently, in both Canada and the United States, young women outnumber young men at the undergraduate level. There are also higher percentages of women (28%) in tertiary-type B institutions, which includes community college, nursing certificates, and university degrees below Bachelors.

However, women remain less likely to pursue education in traditionally male-dominated fields such as STEM, as well as the trades. While advances for women have been made in the Natural Sciences and Engineering (NSE) fields, the proportion of women was still only at 37% at the undergraduate level in 2008-2009, with their participation dropping further at the graduate level.  The decrease of women’s enrolment in the STEM areas at higher levels is described as the ‘leaky pipeline.’ This trend worsens the problem of women’s under-representation in academia and research in these fields.

The most recent National Household survey in 2011 puts women’s representation in all STEM fields at 39%. However, women are mostly concentrated in science (e.g. biology) and technology, according to the survey.

Tuition Fees

While attaining a degree certainly increases a young woman’s earning potential over a life time, more and more young women are taking on debt to do so. Young women for instance have higher take-up of the Canada Student Loans Program, and are more likely than men to take upward of a decade to repay these debts. This not only affects the overall “price tag” of a degree (i.e. higher compound interest), it also has an impact on the disposable income of young women, and the likelihood of owning a home, having savings and/or investments.

Women from minority backgrounds encounter further challenges in this regard. Tuition fees represent a higher percentage of income for racialized women (21%) compared to 17% of non-racilaized women’s pay, and just 11% of the average income of a non-racialized man.

Immigrants are also much more likely to seek assistance in the form of loans (45%), while only 31% of non-immigrants seek financial aid to pay their tuition fees.

With the rising cost of post-secondary education, we can only expect these gendered and racialized impacts of student debt to become more pronounced.

Each year CFUW administers more than $1 million in scholarships and bursaries to young women to help reduce the financial burden of post-secondary education, while continuing to advocate for lower tuition fees.

Careers

Women continue to work in highly “feminized” fields, including in the education and health sectors. According to the latest statistics from the NHS, the two most popular professions for women today are teachers and nurses; the same as in the early 1990’s. The statistics also show that women remain overly represented in clerical and administrative roles.  Not surprisingly  women still comprise a mere 22% of the NSE labour force, and remain under-represented in the skilled trades. In each of the top five male-dominated trades – construction, precision production, transportation and materials moving, and engineering technology – women made up equal to or less than 10% of the workforce.

A number of factors are responsible for this lack representation. Girls and women are pushed towards other fields and not given adequate information about less “traditional” career paths. In the same vein, as evidence demonstrates that women are less likely to move to leadership positions, young girls do not often see female role models in these careers. Furthermore, sexist institutional practices and barriers to a satisfactory work-life balance deter women from more non-traditional pathways.

In academia, women constitute only 22% of full-time professors teaching at Canadian universities, while only 16 out of 95 University Presidents are women. Female faculty members in NSE disciplines are not surprisingly, relatively uncommon. Of full-time NSE professors, women comprise 12.2% of the group, while there are 27.8% of women employed as assistant professors. Women are also more visible towards the lower academic ranks.

An important element of any individual’s career in academia is the number of publications to their name. Women are less likely to author published works in all academic niches. The numbers are lowest in the fields of Mathematics, Operations Research, Economics, Philosophy, and Law.

Women on the tenure track in academia often must adjust their life plans to achieve their career goals. In 2004, Mason and Goulden found that women aiming for tenure are more likely to have children between the ages of 36 to 40 whereas men on the same path generally had their children between the age of 22 and 36. This indicates that women are more often waiting to begin a family because of the constraints of a difficult work-life balance.

Pay Gap

The discrepancy between the pay given to men and women in similar professions is persistent, and slow to change. As of 1998, women with tertiary education (college or university degrees) made only 61% the earnings of their male counterparts. A decade later, this number has increased only slightly to 63%.

One explanation for this difference is that women are more likely to occupy lower-paying positions and/or work part-time hours while they are less likely to secure permanent employment. In many careers, women are less likely to advance to leadership positions, which are generally higher-paying.

There is good news, too, thankfully. In 2005, women entering the workforce with higher levels of education (defined as a post-graduate or doctorate degree) made very close to men with the same level of education at 96% of their earnings.

The pay discrepancy between women and men in the academic setting is also much narrower than other fields, although women are still commonly earning less than their male colleagues. Full-time female professors earned 95.1% of the earnings gained by male full-time professors; associate professors at 97.2%; and assistant professors at 98%.

Solutions

Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” that can address ongoing employment and pay inequities. However, governments, academic institutions and other employers can be more pro-active.

For instance, cross-country studies conducted by the OECD and others have found that subsidized child care boosts women’s participation in the work force across fields. Among industrialized countries Canada currently has one of the lowest child care access rates and invests significantly less in child care than most OECD countries.

Institutions also need to change their policies to enable women to achieve a better work-life balance and reach their academic and career goals without sacrificing their personal aspirations, such as having children.

In addition to a federally funded Universal Early Learning and Child Care program, institutions could also establish new, creative options to alleviate the unpaid care workload in women’s lives. Some examples include integrating employment benefits that offer child care and/or elder care. To attain greater female representation in traditionally male fields or non-traditional career paths, CFUW has proposed a national strategy to encourage women to pursue these pathways and to address employment inequities. This would involve collaborating with the different levels of government, as well as business, labour, and other stakeholders to remove barriers and develop workplace practices that are more inclusive of women and considerate of their needs.

Pro-active pay equity legislation could also help close the pay gap between women and men. A Pay Equity Taskforce made this recommendation, among several others, in 2004; however it has never been implemented.

Addressing student debt is also extremely important, especially as tuition fees continue to increase in most parts of the country. Federal, provincial and territorial governments ought to work together to re-evaluate the post-secondary education system, including working to reduce or entirely eliminate tuition fees. In the meantime, organizations like CFUW are working hard to raise funds for scholarships and bursaries to help reduce the financial burden for women. While there has certainly been a lot of progress for women in academia and all corners of the workforce, we can and should be doing more to ensure that all women can fully realize their potential and are compensated equitably. It is imperative that Canada’s public and private sectors take steps to offer women the same opportunities and advantages in their school and career paths while recognizing that this may require a modification of current policies and practices.

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