Men’s participation in higher education

Male and Female participation in Higher Education 1969 to 2007

Percentage Male and Female participation in Higher Education 1969 to 2007.

I have commented before on the inequality of the achievements of men and women in our education system. The other day I came across the above data on the now defunct ‘Fat Knowledge‘ blog. It seemed impossible, so I followed links to the US data, and then I tracked down the equivalent UK data. The situation in the UK seems delayed as compared with the US, and the general UK participation rate is lower, but the story looks similar.  The data appear to be bona fide and reflect a systematic decline in the fraction of men who attend higher education.If we accept this as a fact for a moment, let’s have a think about ‘Why?’ and ask whether we should try to do anything.


Well if the figures were reversed I have no doubt that women would cynically remark that it was just another manifestation of men’s institutionalised discrimination against women. So are men entitled to say the same about the situation now? Well I think there are many causes, but I think that men and women are different and that our educational system has indeed become biased in favour of what are typically female learning styles. Its my opinion, and I accept I could be wrong.

What to do?

Well if the figures were reversed I have no doubt that this would be portrayed as a scandal, and it would be asserted that action was urgently required. Well I think the current data are scandalous and I am amazed that every scheme I have come across is about encouraging MORE women to participate in higher education. [These schemes are generally focussed on science and engineering which are portrayed as being especially unwelcoming to women – something which I have to say is simply not true. They are often unwelcoming to EVERYONE – because they are just very difficult! But in general there is no systematic bias against women – quite the opposite]. However I think the problem is very deeply rooted in our educational system. And so I have no prescription for ‘immediate action’ because I just don’t have any faith in educational diktats which change every two or three years. But this is very worrying data, and we will reap the consequences of this in years to come if we allow the situation to persist.

4 Responses to “Men’s participation in higher education”

  1. Emma Says:

    The Offsted report for the nursery did mention the gap between “academic” achievements of boys and girls at the age of 3-4 and recommended that the staff increase yet further the things they’ve been doing to engage boys more – like putting letters and numbers on the outdoor toys as well as the indoor ones.

    Of course Richmond Borough has an excellent girls only state secondary school – one of the best state non-selective secondary schools in the country – but doesn’t have an equivalent for boys.

    As a woman in physics – I never saw any discrimination on the way up, but I’m beginning to believe in the glass ceiling, caused not by discrimination but by habits and working styles that are more masculine (competitive rather than collaborative, emphasis on ‘proving the worth’ of your ideas…).

    As the mother of a son, I am very worried about an educational gap between boys and girls – and I think the change from exams to course-work, for example, is part of this – so the same thing again: not discrimination but a culture that suits better a more feminine personality.

    I did a management course at the beginning of the year – we were asked which style of management we preferred – option A was about making fair, rational choices, option B was about using more intuitive approaches and collaborating. All the women on the course chose B, all the men chose A – to the surprise of the trainer, but not me.

    One question we were then asked is do you praise because of effort or because of success. For example if someone has worked a long time on something, gives up late at night, then the other person comes in the next morning, finds the simple error and gives the right answer – do you praise the effort of the first or the success of the second. The men said “success” the women said “both”.

    And coursework vs exams is an effort vs success issue, to a large extent.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Thanks for that.

    Regarding the ‘glass ceiling’ i think that applies to men also – you and I both know men at work who hold back because they want to be bringing up children. Basically the careerist amongst us are either obsessive, have partners who will look after their children exclusively (it would be great to have the choice) or are single or gay.

    As an academic I was used to working alone and the environment required the single-minded dedication and obsessive behaviour characteristically associated with men. I hated it. At NPL I now work in several teams [ leading some and participating in others, I find the power of the team amazing! It is so much more pleasant to work with others. But our management culture – as you are perhaps even more aware than me – focuses strongly on individual ‘prowess’.

    One question that occurs to me reading your reply is this: Is our work more like course work or more more like an exam?

  3. Melindwr Williams Says:

    The discrete category of “participation in higher education” may not be a particularly useful one to use if we are seeking to explain why a smaller percentage of men than women enters higher education.
    There is a wide range of professional and vocational qualifications that requires participation in higher education. In a 2008 Swedish report on women’s participation in higher education ( there is an analysis of female/male participation in professional and vocational qualifications. There is a very wide range of areas – speech and language pathology, veterinary nursing, equine studies, occupational therapy, primary school teaching, nursing, pharmacy, biomedical science, for example – whose participants are mainly women. Highly male dominated qualifications are fewer, and include marine engineering, agricultural management, batchelor of engineering.
    What is the origin of this split? Why are men under-represented on such a wide range of professional and vocational courses? Might it be that there persists in our society a notion that there is “men’s business” and “women’s business”, and that it is this that we are still struggling to overcome?

  4. Richard Says:

    Michael: I can only comment on the situation in the US. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) reports some interesting figures in “Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering (

    Bachelor’s degrees, by sex and field in 2007:

    female in all fields: 886,311
    female in science and engineering: 244,075
    male in all fields: 655,393
    male in science and engineering 241,697

    These are verbatim quotes from the same report:”Women have earned approximately half of S&E (science and engineering) bachelor’s degrees since 2000.” “In 2007, women earned 47% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, up from 33% in 1989.”

    These figures would indicate that representation on men and women in science and engineering among US citizens and permanent residents was approximately equal in 2007 at both the Bachelor’s and PhD level.

    While I was aware of the greater participation of women in university education as a whole, I was quite suprised to see the figures for science and engineering. I also find this quite at odds with what I hear from my university colleagues and research funding agencies.

    As the father of two boys and two girls, I’m aware that academic success is not easy for either sex, but I share your concern for the current disparity at the university level. This reflects an increasing disparity in performance between boys and girls in their primary and secondary (K-12 in US) education. This is something that needs to be addressed but there is no easy solution.

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