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Canine patient Watson is prepared to receive chemotherapy as part of his cancer treatment at the University of Guelph's Small Animal Clinic in Guelph, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Canine patient Watson is prepared to receive chemotherapy as part of his cancer treatment at the University of Guelph's Small Animal Clinic in Guelph, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Who's in the know: Women surge, men sink in education's gender gap Add to ...

EDUCATION REPORTER

In a red-brick building at the University of Guelph, where veterinarians have been schooled for the better part of a century, a demographic shift is taking place that offers a window into the future of human behaviour.

In the past decade, Ontario Veterinary College has seen its student numbers turned on their head: Women account for more than 80 per cent of its students during that time, and now make up more than half of the province's practising vets.

It's an extreme example of a story that is playing out on campuses in Canada and around the world - and a trend that could have profound social implications. There are now three female undergraduates for every two male students on Canadian campuses, and more women than men graduated with higher education degrees in 75 of 98 countries examined in a recent UNESCO study.

Women are expected to gain more power in public and corporate life and more financial independence.

Faced with a dwindling number of potential mates who are their education equals, however, researchers speculate more women may take a pass on the traditional family, or be more willing to leave it when things don't work. And more men may find themselves tending to hearth and home.

"We are an example of things to come," says Serge Desmarais, Guelph's associate vice-president, academic, and a psychologist who specializes in gender studies. "Imagine 30 years from now when 60, 70 per cent of the people who are educated are women. It has to change the ratio of who does what. And that has huge social ramifications."

Economist Ross Finnie agrees. "It's a whole new world," says Prof. Finnie, who teaches public policy at the University of Ottawa. "This is a complete flip-around from not so long ago. I think the direction of change is almost certain. I don't think it's ridiculous to say women will have the upper hand in a way they haven't in the past."

Today's "gender gap" has been a long time in the making. Women reached parity at the undergraduate level in 1987, at the masters level in 1997, and now account for about 46 per cent of PhD candidates. Women are still the minority in fields such as engineering, computer science and math, but account for the majority of students in most disciplines.

But the economic meltdown and the huge hit taken by traditionally male-dominated industries, such as the auto sector, has brought a new urgency to the debate. Even in the depths of the current recession, when the country shed 330,000 jobs, about 62,000 new positions were created for university graduates in the 12 months up to September, Statistics Canada numbers show.

Some university leaders say the gap is a reflection of a larger societal puzzle that sees boys lagging girls in academic achievement long before they reach campuses, and has led to new approaches for teaching boys, such as boys-only schools. Studies show that as early as Grade 9, more girls plan to attend university, and those aspirations increase as they approach graduation.

"We should be concerned about any group not participating in post-secondary education," says Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy. "We need to ask some tough questions about the graduation rates of men out of high school and why they aren't going to universities."

Others are more cautious, pointing to U.S. research that finds girls historically have done better at school, but were discouraged from continuing their education. And men are still going to university at record levels: 85,000 of them were in Canadian undergraduate and graduate programs in 2007 - about 30 per cent more than in 2000. As for colleges, men and women are going in equal numbers.

At Guelph, first-year student vet Adam Little is acutely aware of his outnumbered status. "I am a white guy and I am in the minority. It is definitely a different dynamic," says Mr. Little, who acknowledges he and his male classmates tend to stick together. While he knows of several men who had ambitions of going to the vet college, they took different paths when confronted with the school's admissions hurdles. "The people who stick with it are mostly women," he adds.

Some attempts to right the growing imbalance have been controversial. When University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera told local media she was prepared to be "an advocate for young white men," the reaction was quick, including a poster campaign by students mocking her remarks.

"I know a problematic statement when I see one," said student Derek Warwick, a key organizer of the campaign. A Métis student from rural Alberta, he says there are plenty of groups - racial minorities, aboriginals, students from low-income families - who are underrepresented at universities and deserve attention.

And despite the changes anticipated by some researchers, women in Canada hold roughly 5 per cent of top corporate jobs and account for 5.6 per cent of the highest earners, according to the research group Catalyst Inc. Young women still make about 90 cents for every dollar earned by a young man.

A South Asian who was one of only two female engineering professors at the University of British Columbia when she began her career, Dr. Samarasekera says she understands how much ground women and minority groups still need to gain. But she argues society can no longer ignore what is happening to men.

"There is a feeling men can take care of themselves - clearly that is not true. If that were true, we wouldn't be seeing this growing gap." Men's failure to go on to higher education in the same numbers as women is a "demographic bomb," she warns, that will hurt Canada's ability to compete and limit men's potential.

But beyond stepping up recruitment efforts, universities say their hands are tied. "We really have no ability to do anything in the admissions process to give preferential treatment," says David Hannah, the vice-president responsible for enrolment at the University of Saskatchewan. "I've had deans ask me about that as a way to get a better balance in their programs, and the answer is no. It's against the law."

In the United States, favouritism toward male applicants is suspected at some liberal arts colleges, where the absence of faculties such as engineering and computer science puts gender numbers even more off-kilter. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last month began an inquiry into accusations that private schools are discriminating against women to prevent campuses from becoming "too female," fearing this will discourage others from applying.

At the University of Guelph, Prof. Desmarais says simple solutions such as boys-only schools can't be expected to solve such a complex question. The greater problem, he argues, is the still-held belief by some groups that education is a waste of their time.

"The problem is not what happens here, but what happens to lead people here," he says. "If achieving in school earlier in life is not perceived to be important, then I can tell you, they are never seeing university."

At the vet school, Mr. Little says being one of 26 men in a class of 112 has some obvious advantages. Although singlet, at least in one respect, the odds are still in his favour.

Follow on Twitter: @lizchurchto

 

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