Globe and Mail

Where have all the smart men gone?

To university -- where they are now greatly outnumbered by women

Monday, December 28, 1998

Something dramatic is happening in Canadian higher education. Women are taking over, and the extent and speed of the change is remarkable. In 1971, 39 per cent of postsecondary students in Canada were women. In 1997-98, nearly 55 per cent of full-time university students were women. And there has been a similar shift among part-time university and college students.

The change reflects both the numbers of women in university abruptly shooting up and the number of men gradually cascading down. Between 1993-94 and 1997-98, the number of full-time female students increased to 312,663 from 301,670. At the same time the number of male students diminished from 272,644 to 260,436.

Let's make clear what is not happening. The number of women in the general population who are of university age is not abruptly increasing while the number of similary aged men drops. In 1971 there were 1,743,000 men between the ages of 20 and 29, and 1,731,000 women. In 1996 the figures were 1,944,860 men and 1,970,845 women. The total population of that age group, in other words, has been pretty much 50-50 by gender.

So here is what is happening: more girls are staying in and graduating from high school. In 1981, 30.6 per cent of boys and 28.3 per cent of girls had dropped out of high school. In 1996 those numbers were 20.7 and 15.7 respectively. In an age when returns to education are increasing, men are now far more likely than women to never finish high school and never go to university.

All of which is, among other things, a great irony. The female inequities of 30 years have blinded us to the male inequities of today. There is still far more worry about the underrepresentation of women in a few remaining fields such as engineering and the hard sciences than widespread notice of female-dominant numbers virtually everywhere else. There is more concern about a glass ceiling in a woman's workplace than the unseen concrete ceiling that undereducated men are constructing for themselves.

A second thing to observe is that this is not a strictly Canadian phenomenon. Australia's numbers are similar. A comparable gender disparity has been observed in the United States and now approaches 60-40 at some private colleges. Some schools are starting special drives to recruit male students.

The suggestions of what may be causing the educational disequilibrium are largely anecdotal. Maybe being a good student is as much about good habits as intelligence, and maybe girls have more of those better behavioural habits. Maybe boys have more learning problems. Or maybe, when given an equal opportunity, girls -- on average, and in many areas -- are just smarter than boys.

But the truth of the matter is that we don't know. What we do know is that, just as we once couldn't allow higher education to be prejudiced against women, we now can't afford to shrug at what is happening to men.

If the federal government is looking for something of national educational significance to put its budgetary surplus into, we can think of nothing better than a Canada-wide study to unravel the "missing-college-man" conundrum.

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