The university gender gap

My semi-regular piece in the higher education section of The Age was this week on the gender gap at universities, with women making up 58% of domestic enrolments. The figure below shows the post-WW2 trend. Since 1957 there has been only one year in which women did not gain enrolment share, and that was last year – men picked up 0.08 percentage points of total enrolments.

My initial intuition was that this imbalance was a serious problem, but in the end I was a bit equivocal. Higher education’s loss has been vocational education’s gain, and though fewer people with voc ed than higher ed get very high salaries, upper-level vocational qualifications are as good as insurance against unemployment as a degree.

Due to the relative reluctance of female graduates to work full-time, the uni gender balance clearly has major implications for workforce supply. But apart from the health professions the policy of flooding the labour market with graduates has meant that shortages are occasional and cyclical rather than chronic.

Long ago I suggested that the imbalance was contributing to a shortage of suitable male partners for university-educated women. It’s certainly impossible for every female graduate to find a husband who is also a graduate, though at the time of the 2006 census female graduates were only slightly less likely than male graduates to be partnered.

For male uni students and graduates the imbalance is probably a plus, due to less competition in labour and marital markets.

For the guys doing well enough at school to at least get a certificate III or IV the overall situation is not a disaster. It’s the men with no or lower-level qualifications who are in trouble.

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