The workforce supply of female graduates

I’m writing a piece for The Age on the feminisation of Australia’s universities. In 2009, 59% of domestic commencing students were women. Overall the proportion of students who are female is a little lower, as there are strong male biases in education in some source countries for overseas students.

The gender shift in enrolments has big implications for the future labour supply of graduates. Though the 2006 census is getting a bit out of date, the figure below is striking. After their 20s, only a minority of female graduates work full-time except for age 50-54, when 51% are full-time workers. Obviously parenting responsibilities are a major factor in this, but even childless women are much less willing to work full-time than men.

I thought these numbers might offer some insight into the finances of the HELP loan scheme, but the ATO tax statistics don’t support this hypothesis.

Women owe 56.6% ofthe outstanding HELP debt, much what we would expect given their share of the student population. The average female balance of $12,361 in 2008-09 is lower than the average male balance of $13,914. I can think of a couple of possible reasons: the strong female majorities in cheap (to the student) courses such as education, nursing and arts; and a larger number of female than male graduates who have old unpaid debts, but at lower totals due to cheap HECS rates in the past.

If the gender age-work patterns persist, it does however raise questions about what happens if student contributions increase. Historically, the average repayment time for HECS/HELP debts is about 8 years. So on lower student contribution amounts, women who graduate in their early 20s could clear all or much of their debt by the time they leave full-time work to raise kids. But if initial debts are larger, that may not be the case.

8 thoughts on “The workforce supply of female graduates

  1. All the more reason to increase the repayment rate to something like 10% of taxable income.
    The large decline in full-time employment for both sexes from age 55 is also concerning. We know this is NOT because one-third of 55-60 year old men/couples have enough super to keep them going through retirement. It would be pretty disturbing if the declining rate of full-time work was mainly due to unemployment and disability.


  2. I agree with Rajat on this — older people are a serious concern — I have a few other questions/observations:

    1) It’s going to make the government’s retire at 70 policy hopeless whenever it finally arrives.

    2) I find the childless female results suprising. Any idea why there is such a difference in that group? I would have guessed they would have been very similar to males.

    3) It shows why you need to educate people at a far higher rate than is necessary — if only 60% of people are using their degrees (or whatever the real number is), you will need more graduates than appears necessary. This problem will increase if the gender ratios of graduates go up further unless other things change.

    4) We are going to get a lot of social problems in the long term if well educated females don’t marry/partner poorly educated males and vice-versa.


  3. Conrad – My hypothesis would be that childless people have fewer financial responsibilities, and therefore can afford to work less. Unfortunately I could not find a quick and easy way to identify childless males with the census software I was using.

    And yes, there are major implications for labour force supply in these numbers.


  4. Thats a fascinating chart Andrew. Is the female line including all females or just those with children?

    Is the difference between men and childless women due to women studying areas that have more part-time work? eg. Education or nursing or something?

    Couple of possible drivers.
    1. Female dominated industries have more workplace flexibility because of women with children.
    2. In all industries it is more acceptable for a women to work part time than a man. e.g. More men would like to work part-time but that is not socially acceptable.

    My rough estimate is that if 80% of men in prime-age are full-time and we know the unemployment rate for graduates is low (<5%) then it means 15% of men work part-time which is a minority, but not a tiny fraction.


  5. M – Female line is all females, so taking out those without children would produce lower overall rates (though 80%+ of graduate women eventually have at least one kid).

    As you suggest, there are significant differences in what males and females study, and women tend to take courses that offer employment on a PT basis. But presumably they could work FT if they wanted to.

    PT work for men 30-54 is about 9%; giving an overall u-shape, declining in 20s, increasing in the decade to retirement.Unemployment is low but there is also about 4% not in the labour force, and a similar number classified as employed but not at work in the week of the census.

    PT work is more acceptable for women than men, but I suspect that men also perceive the opportunity cost of work versus other activities as lower than for women.


  6. Well, someone has to say it… I think the different rates of full time workforce participation between childless women and men come down in part to their respective expectations of taking on the role of family provider. A childless single woman does not need to plan her career on the basis that she will one day support a family. It may end up happening that way, but it is not expected. Whereas most single childless men do tend to plan their careers on the basis that they are likely to one day be supporting a family. This raises the value they place on money and position vis-a-vis women.


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