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student newspaper challenge

Females make up the majority of doctors in training at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., which held its white coat ceremony for the class of 2013 Oct. 12, 2010.Photographer: Glenn Lowson

The following piece is the winning entry from The Globe Student Newspaper Challenge. We asked student publications to join in the debate on one of the eight issues from our Time to Lead series.

The winning entry is by Karolina Karas writing for the Martlet at the University of Victoria.

"The Martlet brought original reporting and valuable insights to an issue that has been debated for years," Globe and Mail Editor John Stackhouse said. "That the paper was able to have some fun with its presentation made it all the more appealing. Smart and sassy -- a good model for any newspaper."

The winning entry

Cory Dohlen entered the first year of his primary education practicum shocked that there were five other boys in his class of 29 students - not because there were so few boys, but because there were so many.

Dohlen's feeling has seemingly become the norm in universities worldwide. The increasing trend of girls outnumbering boys in post-secondary institutions (PSIs) is not abnormal.

At UVic, 57.1 per cent of current undergraduate students are female and 42.9 per cent are male, according to Tony Eder, a director for UVic's Institutional Planning and Analysis. For graduate studies, the numbers are similar, with 58 per cent females and 42 per cent males.

This trend is escalated by an increasing number of males dropping out of PSIs worldwide. Eder explains that the exact number is difficult to track because there is no way of concluding whether it is a leave of absence or a more permanent decision.

Jamie Cassels, UVic's Vice-President Academic and Provost, believes there's not yet an answer for this phenomenon.

"For almost 10 years, it's been like that: a female population that is at about 60 per cent versus 40 per cent for males. And it varies. It's interesting that it's not getting worse. The question for me is, is it even a problem? If it is a problem, are there barriers and problems at the university level or is it happening somewhere else?"

One theory suggests the gap between males and females begins in elementary school due to the fact that the vast majority of elementary teachers are female, and the mentoring position teachers have at such a young age.

"If you look at the [sex]population of teachers in secondary schools, it's roughly 50/50," explained Cassels, whereas in elementary schools, males make up approximately 20 per cent of the teaching staff nation-wide. In Dohlen's primary education program, only 20 of the 140 students were male.

Cassels believes social values and milieus are what influence children to attend PSIs.

"The most important determinant of whether or not a student goes to university is based on what is talked about around the dining room table - essentially, social values."

The second most important, according to Cassels, is the students' second home: school.

"Those images of what you're going to do, most of the literature shows, gets fixed in your head in late elementary and middle schools. By the time you're in high school, you pretty well know what pathway you're on. So if gendered messages are happening in elementary school that's where it's most likely to be influential," said Cassels.

Some experts suggest that the solution to this gap is bringing in more male teachers. Based on his own personal experience, Dohlen agrees.

"Sometimes, in the courses I had to take for the program, the instructor would refer to the teacher as 'she,' as in 'This is what she would be doing in the classroom,'" he said. "So the program's a little more biased that way, because it caters to the majority."

At UVic, the education department, along with other programs like women's studies or nursing, is heavily dominated by female students, a major concern for Cassels.

"Teaching is female-oriented and that means a lot of boys don't have role models in the education system. They lose motivation to go further," he explained.

Jo-Anne Lee, a women's studies professor at UVic with a research interest in adult education and feminist theory, doesn't believe bringing more males into the education system will change the gender gap.

"Why is education considered a female occupation? We have to address the gender bias in education, which reflects the gender bias in society at large," Lee explained. "Looking after young kids is seen to be an essential female nature. I think we need to look at popular culture and the messages of popular culture and masculinity."

Lee said that while these constructions of gender are at play in our society, the sex and gender of elementary teachers doesn't matter.

"So what if we put men in primary education? They will become feminized in elementary school - they're not seen to be 'real guys' because 'real guys' don't do that. There's a culture of masculinity in our culture that tells boys that it's okay to be jocks but men today are rewarded for their brawn and not their brain power, at least in high school."

Lee said men in elementary education will be pressured to conform to the dominant image of that field.

"If we don't address the context in encouraging guys to teach in lower grades, putting guys in that situation won't change anything."

However, Lee further emphasizes that this gender gap is not the biggest problem facing universities and society as a whole.

Lee notes that in Canada, women are still paid less than men for the same job, which she says is a prominent issue in the education system as a whole.

Lee uses an example of the Group of Thirteen (G13), the top 13 Canadian universities, where only 15 per cent of the presidents are women and 20 per cent of the full-time professors are women.

"If you look at these statistics," said Lee, "it's very shocking."

Affirmative action programs are a common solution to the gender gap found in universities. To combat the concern, UVic's engineering program does have a student recruitment program similar to that of affirmative action - where recruitment of women is at the top of the agenda. Cassels is clear that this does not include "preferential admission policies or categories" for women but rather encouragement to enter the engineering department.

For Lee, the issue regarding males attending PSIs goes beyond gender.

"We actually have to look at where these numbers are coming from because it's not just gender. Once you break it down by race and class, it is very clear that the dropout rate is constituted by males [in minorities] White, affluent males are still flocking to universities and they're not dropping out. My question is, affirmative action for whom?"

A recent American study from the website Inside Higher Ed states that male and female enrollment in America is fairly even except for specific races - Latino and Asian males are enrolling into PSIs less than their female counterparts.

"I think we need to look at gender, race and class together. I think that's the necessary question to push at. It's too easy to default to just boys and girls," said Lee.

In the 1970s, today's university enrollment numbers were in reverse, with females being the minority. The movement following has led Canada, and the rest of the world, to this point where females are the majority. Based on this experience, it seems time is the only feasible solution.

"I think it takes a long time to even develop a social consensus that [the gender gap]is even a problem," Cassels said. "Once it's recognized as a problem, it takes a while to develop a social consensus required to do fairly bold things."

Last October, University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, a south Asian female, stated in an interview that there is a gender problem in universities, and that she would be an advocate for young white males. Although Cassels admires Samarasekera, he says the response to her comments showed how it can be risky to be at the forefront of social change.

"I think the gender gap will emerge [as a problem]and we're getting to the point of saying it's something we should be worried about but we're fairly far back in the queue having the social science knowledge as to what to do about it."

As for Dohlen, he is no longer in the elementary school education program and is currently pursuing a sociology degree.

"Being a role model for young boys would be motivation to step into that position," he said. "But if you no longer want to do it then you're not going to be a good teacher or role model."