Gender equity in higher education

From undergraduates to presidents.

Ann L. Mullen
Moroccan protester

A Moroccan protester demands gender equity. The same demand is still being made on Canadian campuses.

The greatest challenge in teaching undergraduate students about gender inequality is that they usually don’t recognize its existence. Gender issues, they ask? Aren’t those a thing of the distant past? Students these days have been raised to believe that women can now do anything they want, that there are no longer barriers to a woman’s success in any area of life. And when they look around their own classrooms, these assumptions are seemingly confirmed. Women now make up 57 percent of all full-time undergraduate students. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the current gender parity in undergraduate enrollment is only one face of the issue. Gender integration in higher education is, in fact, far from complete. Although women now comprise the majority of undergraduate students, there are strong gender disparities across fields of study. Women earn the lion’s share of degrees in fields such as education, social sciences and humanities, but make up only 43 percent of the students in math and physical sciences and just 29 percent in engineering and applied sciences.

Many believe that integration of certain fields is only a matter of time. However, trends over the last 30 years show a remarkable lack of substantial change. While some fields have become more gender-balanced, the majority have not. Researchers have linked these patterns to gender inequities in the labour market. Female university graduates are less likely to participate in the labour market, are less likely to be employed in high-level jobs, and earn less than their male counterparts.

To dig deeper into this issue, I think we need to look not just at the student cohort in any given lecture, but also at the leadership figures these students are exposed to in each and every class—their faculty.

Women now hold 36 percent of all faculty positions, marking a five-fold increase from 1970. However, these increases have not been equal across fields. Women show the highest representation in the humanities, social sciences and education, and the lowest in engineering, mathematics, computer science and the physical sciences. Representation is also not even across ranks. Only one in five full professors is female, but women hold 36 percent and 43 percent of associate and assistant professor positions, respectively, and are overrepresented among part-time faculty.

In terms of the highest-status academic positions, the gender balance tips even more heavily towards men. Men are more likely than women to be employed at one of Canada’s 15 leading universities and far more likely to be awarded a prestigious Canada Research Chair (CRC) position. The latest figures show that men hold 83 percent of Tier 1 and 67 percent of Tier 2 CRC positions. Even more troubling is that not one of the 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs—established in 2008 to provide up to $10 million for new research programs— was awarded to a woman.

Strong gender disparities can also be found at the leadership level of universities. In the University of Toronto’s 180-year history, there has not been a single female president. Research by David Turpin of the University of Victoria shows that across Canada, women make up only about 19 percent of all university presidents, a figure that has not increased since the mid-1990s. As UTSC’s David Zweig notes (page XX), perhaps this is because our expectations about the characteristics of a good leader are still centred around a male norm, disadvantaging aspiring female leaders.

More overt forms of gender discrimination also exist within universities. A recent study from Yale University showed that both male and female science professors viewed female undergraduates as less competent than males and were less likely to offer them a job, even when they had the exact same credentials. A number of other studies have documented systemic discrimination on the basis of gender. University policies, such as parental leave and promotion and evaluation systems, also contribute to gender imbalances.

The gender integration of higher education is clearly far from complete. Barriers and biases, both conscious and unconscious, continue to negatively effect women in universities. The strong representation of women at the undergraduate level belies many less positive indicators of gender change in academia. Once my own students learn to look not just around them in the classroom but across fields of study as well, up the academic hierarchy and at the structures of power and leadership, the true gender dimensions of higher education become more apparent.

Ann L. Mullen is an associate professor of sociology at UTSC.