Not fit for women (or men)?

Around this time of year many universities will have been holding graduation ceremonies. And as the graduands approach the stage, it will have been noticeable that in some disciplines they were predominantly of one gender. Engineers and computer scientists will more often than not have been men, while nurses and teachers will have mainly been women. In some subjects – say, law – the gender gap is also widening, with women making up the majority. Is this an avoidable state of affairs, or something we just have to put up with?

Dr Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow suggests the latter. As reported in the Herald newspaper, he has argued that ‘we probably need to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses’, and that initiatives to bring about another outcome ‘completely deny human biology and nature.’ He also said that it should not matter to us whether the person who fixes our computers is a man or a woman. Rather, in a free society we should let people choose their professions without worrying about what that produces in terms of gender balance.

Of course historically there have been other implications. A profession dominated by women has tended to be an under-valued one, with lower pay and fewer opportunities for career development. In addition, such professional imbalances tend to perpetuate themselves as they restrict the availability of role models to persons of the other sex. Whether these patterns may change as women take hold increasingly of previously male-dominated careers such as law remains to be seen. Equally, as evidence grows of the disengagement of some boys from education more generally, we will need to see whether this produces new social problems.

The patterns of university education have a more profound impact on society than many other things. Nobody expects or requires the student population across all courses to be perfectly gender balanced, but it is unhealthy for gender stereotyping to be reinforced in higher education. There are no quick or easy solutions, but it would be a good start for us to recognise that we still have a problem, and that while the specific nature of the problem may change from profession to profession, it still needs to be addressed.

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3 Comments on “Not fit for women (or men)?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    How ironic that Dr Stoet is based at the Owent center for *educational change*, clearly not the right place for someone completely oblivious to established, multidisciplinary research in the field of gender (studies) and looking for 15 minutes of academic fame!

  2. mdick99 Says:

    Assuming that the report is accurate, it’s a pretty silly statement on the part of Dr Stoet. I can only really comment on the computing side of things, but there is clearly a strong cultural component to the gender imbalance in the discipline. Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen women drop from 42% of the annual cohort to 15% of the annual cohort in my degree in Australia, hardly a change that has been driven by any genetic factor. In addition, in countries like Thailand from my experience, even in the hard aspects of computing such as Computer Science, women make up over 50% of the student body.

    I can’t be certain for disciplines like physics and engineering, but I’m pretty sure cultural issues are likely responsible for a major part of the gender imbalance.

  3. V.H Says:

    This is one that I think has more to do with the happening in wider society than it has with you.
    There is a presumption on the part of many within education that it’s the answer to virtually all solutions. While on the face of it it seems to be such, for certainly without it the citizen has no chance at all, the citizen with it has little chance in certain professions either. You see if a student in entering a field of study that directs then down one or other route they’ve made certain calculations.
    What are the assumptions made by someone with a maths degree studying teaching. Where do they see their lives ten, twenty years hence. Can they own a home, marry, have kids, you know the usual. Or what about the person who studying for a PhD. At what age can they expect to begin a life where a home, a husband/wife, kids factor ‘on their salary alone’.
    When you view the direct degrees like the ones you list above. Virtually all of them have impediments. Yes, a doctor will have an income to feed a family. But at what age.
    Kids view 40 as one foot in the grave, and why wouldn’t they when it’s double their own age. But you ask any at what age they see themselves settled, then ask at what age they expect they will be settled you’ll hear a reality that’s truly frightening. So is it any wonder someone with a degree in history who sees themselves in teaching will hook up with an accountant for while the efforts of the universities in their attempts to even things up there are wider and stronger forces at work.

    For what it’s worth. I think the quicker Scotland, Ireland and England has rent controls the better. Something has to rebalance the equation citizens are making today. And I know interference will have it’s own problems what’s happening now is just insane.

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