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Home > Education > Women in higher education Accueil

Women in higher education 


Chiao-Ling Chien, a UIS data analyst, outlines the progress and pitfalls in women's pursuit of higher education.


Where do women stand today in terms of tertiary education?


We have seen unprecedented growth in women’s enrolment over the past four decades. The number of female students in tertiary institutions has grown almost twice as fast as that of men since 1970.


Are differences seen across regions?


Women started catching up to men in North America and Western Europe in the 1970s and even surpassed male enrolment rates by the early 1980s. A similar trend occurred in the 1990s in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Central Asia. This being said – women have had the advantage in the formerly Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe for the past 40 years.


The real news is in the Arab States, as well as in East Asia and the Pacific. Both regions just reached the parity line, after decades of steady growth in female enrolment.


However, women continue to be disadvantaged in South and West Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. This is partly due to the fact that relatively few students are able to pursue higher education. When educational opportunity and resources are scarce, it seems that women are less likely to get them. Across sub-Saharan Africa, there are only about 62 female students for every 100 male students. In South and West Asia, there are 74 women enrolled in tertiary education for every 100 male students.


Do these trends suggest a link between women’s participation and national wealth? 


Overall, we find that women are more likely to pursue tertiary education in countries with higher levels of national wealth. In most wealthy countries, female students clearly outnumber men at the tertiary level. In Iceland, there are almost twice as many women enrolled in tertiary education as men. In the United States and the Russian Federation, there are about 129 and 126 female students for every 100 male students, respectively. A similar pattern is found in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.


By comparison, in countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guinea and Niger – where the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is as low as PPP$3,000 or below – there are fewer than 35 female tertiary students for every 100 male students.


In fact, there are only seven places in the world where we find equal gross enrolment ratio for women and men: Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, Mexico, Swaziland and Switzerland.


So, overall, it sounds like women have the advantage over men globally…


Well, these data don’t tell the full story. Women face considerable barriers as they move up the education ladder to research careers. When we look at higher education outputs – the number of graduates produced – the global picture shows a near balance between men and women who obtain Bachelor’s degrees. Then, slightly more women (56%) than men get Master’s degrees. However, men surpass women in virtually all countries at the highest levels of education, accounting for 56% of all PhD graduates and 71% of researchers.


Which fields of education are most popular among women?


Women are just as likely as men to graduate in the fields of Science and Social sciences, business and law. Education is another popular field – in some countries, nine out of ten education graduates are women. In contrast, men continue to dominate the field of Engineering, manufacturing and construction. They are also far more likely to get degrees in Computing.


What are the policy implications of the data?


Well, I think we should start by considering what the data do not reveal. The fact that a rising number of women are pursuing higher education does not mean that there are fewer opportunities for men. The growth in female enrolment partly reflects the changing values and attitudes related to the role and aspirations of women in society that are the legacy of social change and feminist movements which emerged globally in the 1960s and 1970s. 


Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognise that female over-representation in higher education is not reflected in the labour market. Studies by the OECD and other organizations have shown that women are not on equal footing with men in terms of salaries and decision-making positions, despite having the same or better qualifications in terms of education.


For more detailed statistical information, see the Global Education Digest 2010, which focuses on gender disparities in education.


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