The Education Gender Gap: It’s not just a numbers game
Every year, the World Economic Forum puts out the Global Gender Gap Report, which measures four key areas of life: economic participation, educational attainment, health outcomes and political participation. According to the 2013 report, Canada has a perfect score for women’s educational attainment; however, all this supposed equality actually measures is enrolment. Because more than 50 per cent of postsecondary students in Canada are female, Canada gets a perfect score.
So is that it? Is the educational gender gap really closed? A number of sources, both popular and expert, would have you believe that the education gap in Canada is indeed closed. If inequality exists on campus, it is only in select fields (science and math), but certainly not the arts and humanities. I would like to suggest that the gender gap is not that simple and, in fact, despite the numbers, a large gender gap remains on our campuses even in the arts and humanities.
To be sure, actually enrolling in postsecondary institutions is where educational gender equity begins (we should be proud of the progress we’ve made), but it would be shallow to think that simple enrolment is where it ends. The campus experience of female postsecondary students is overwhelmingly shaped by men. Between 70 and 80 per cent of senior administrative roles are occupied by men. The classroom experience is no better, with only 22 per cent of full professors being women. This inequality may very well manifest itself in the sort of educational disadvantages here that have been observed in the U.S. like who gets called on in class. Perhaps most importantly, when you get right down to the core of education, the subject matter, it is still almost completely dominated by men and traditionally male concerns.
I study political science and philosophy, which means, a complete education should include adequate coverage of all those perspectives, ideas and issues that shape our daily lives and thought. I have had the privilege to learn about Plato, Descartes, Marx and Mill; I’ve studied the dominant schools of international relations and have enjoyed it immensely. Yet for every 20 Karl Marx’s and John Stuart Mill’s there’s maybe one Mary Wollstonecraft taught. For every 20 classes on resource security, there’s maybe one on food security. Basically, if I happened to miss one class in every course I took, I could potentially go four years without ever hearing what a woman thought.
I am exaggerating of course, but only just a little bit. Mill has important things to say about women and their struggles, but it’s always in the context of a conversation between men. There are female scholars in all the major schools of international relations, but they are in the minority (and I don’t think that’s an accident). Gender equity is about more than just who shows up; it’s about what we learn and how we learn it. A complete arts and humanities education means reading and engaging with the concerns, perspectives and ideas of women every bit as much as men. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky in the courses I’ve taken, and I’m sure it’s different for different department, but I suspect my experience is not uncommon.
If Canada is ever to really close the gender gap in postsecondary education, we need to stop thinking about it in purely quantitative terms. We need to start questioning not only who is being taught (i.e. the gender of the student), but what does and doesn’t get taught. The answers we find may be bleaker than we’d like to admit, but we absolutely have the power to improve and, as they say, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one.
Benjamin Miller is a 4th year political science and philosophy student at the University of Ottawa and host of the policy news show Happenstance and Occurrences on CHUO 89.1 FM.