The gender gap in college courses

Data from the Higher Education Authority provides insight into the gender disparity both between academic disciplines, and third-level institutions themselves

The 17 recipients of Intel’s Women in Tech scholarships in 2015 – one of many initiatives attempting to address the underrepresentation of women within STEM sectors.

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The Higher Education Authority (HEA) publishes a wealth of data about enrolment in the institutions it funds each year, including seven universities, fifteen institutes of technology and four part-funded colleges. Between them they represent the overwhelming majority of third level education in Ireland, and therefore the statistics are a valuable insight into the demographic makeup of Ireland’s higher education institutions.

I did some analysis on the most recent set of numbers (2014/15) to see what they can tell us about Ireland’s places of learning. I chose to focus on the attribute which has the largest effect on education, statistically – gender.

Variance in participation across institutions

“Institutes of technology offer more science, engineering and computer focused courses, which are disproportionately male.”

The first important thing to note about gender in Irish third level education is that in total there are roughly equal numbers of men and women (as the HEA does not apparently make allowance for those identifying as non-binary, regrettably) enrolled – 49.33% and 50.67% respectively.

However, there are quite large disparities in individual categories when the data is examined more closely. For instance, there is a considerable correlation between the type of institution and its gender makeup – institutes of technology are overwhelmingly male dominated, and colleges are disproportionately full of female students.

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Universities lie somewhere in the middle, almost balanced. There are various potential explanations for this. One is subject breakdown. Institutes of technology offer more science, engineering and computer focused courses, which are disproportionately male. Colleges are almost entirely focused on education, an area that consistently attracts more women than men. Colleges and universities also tend to have higher CAO requirements than ITs, and girls consistently outperform boys at second level in almost every subject.

Variance in participation by age

“[…]more men choose to pursue undergraduate studies slightly later on in life, and make up a greater percentage of mature students, for whatever reason.”

Gender balance also varies with age. The differences are far less pronounced than those along institutional lines, but still large enough to be significant.

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In the 17-21 age range, the numbers are relatively balanced, with slightly more women than men, but after that there’s a steep decline. Only 46.6% of students aged 25-29 are female, and the number for over 30s is only slightly better. This isn’t due to fewer women choosing to pursue postgraduate studies – women in fact make up more of the postgrad student body in Ireland than men do (by about 5 percentage points), which should in theory skew the statistics in the opposite direction. This must mean that more men choose to pursue undergraduate studies slightly later on in life, and make up a greater percentage of mature students, for whatever reason.

Variance in participation across subjects

“Of the 93 subjects tracked by the HEA, 65 (or 70%) have a difference of 20 percentage points or more between the genders.”

By far the most interesting set of statistics about gender at third level, however, are the subject-based numbers. They skew far more than by either age or institution, and only a handful of subject categories come even close to gender balance.This isn’t a new revelation, nor is it particularly surprising where the imbalance lies, but it’s startling just how big the differences still are.

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Engineering is by far the worst offender in terms of female participation, with the sector as a whole, nationally, 85.6% male. Individual categories are better and worse in places – materials science is 96.3% male, but food processing is only 39.1%. This is consistent with what has long been reported – there is still a significant cultural taboo which discourages women from entering the field, and it is only just beginning to be dismantled.

In contrast, areas of engineering which crossover with fields seen as more traditionally female, such as food and textiles, don’t have the same problem – in fact quite the opposite. The sciences are similar offenders, if not quite as bad. As a whole the area is just 37.4% female, but there are significant differences between the various branches. More maths based strands are male dominated, including physics (82.4%) and computer science (86.7%). Life sciences are more female dominated, like biology and biochemistry (60%). Chemistry hovers in the middle, at 52% female. Again, this fits with (and is caused by) stereotypes, and consistent reports from women of relatively hostile working environments in STEM careers.

On the opposite end of the scale are areas like education and healthcare. Education generally is 70.9% female, but pre-school education is the single most unbalanced field in Ireland at a staggering 97.6% female. The health and welfare sector is similar, but interestingly medicine is almost balanced (52.1% female) while nursing is very much not (89.2%). Again, this is indicative of cultural norms – men shy away from fields seen as “feminine”, such as childcare and nursing.

Conclusion

“We’re socialising women to believe they’re less suited to do maths and men to believe that entering childcare would be emasculating and beneath them. We all need to be challenging our assumptions about such things on a daily basis.”

The statistics when viewed as a whole are damning. Though education as a whole is almost balanced in gender and some of the broad categories like social sciences come close, the overwhelming majority of subjects in third level show a heavy gender skew in one or other direction. Of the 93 subjects tracked by the HEA, 65 (or 70%) have a difference of 20 percentage points or more between the genders.  

Efforts to dismantle stereotypes and to, for instance, encourage women to enter STEM fields are laudable and should be expanded – but in their current form they’re clearly not remotely sufficient. Though the statistics examined here obviously apply only to Ireland, there’s no reason to believe we’re any kind of unique case. This is a widespread cultural issue, as there’s no reason why anyone should immediately be more or less interested in a field because of their gender.

We’re socialising women to believe they’re less suited to do maths and men to believe that entering childcare would be emasculating and beneath them. We all need to be challenging our assumptions about such things on a daily basis.

It’s bizarre and unacceptable that we’ve become so used to these massive differences and accepted them as a fact of life. These numbers are alarming, but they’re just symptoms – symptoms of a wider societal malaise that requires immediate action from all of us.

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister Engineering student, and a former Online Editor and Deputy Online Editor.