Globe and Mail

The best of times ...

JEFFREY SIMPSON
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, September 1, 1999

IN OTTAWA -- University students are starting to flood back on campuses, and most of them will be women.

Statistics show that single women with children and few skills are often trapped in poverty, but statistics also show how women have remade the face of Canadian campuses. Since every study confirms that those with more education have brighter job and salary prospects than those without, the future should be the best ever for women lucky enough to get those degrees.

Women have accounted for more than three-quarters of all university-enrolment growth in the past 15 years. In 1978, 10 per cent of Canadian women between 18 and 21 attended university; in 1997, 20.5 per cent of them did. During that same period, the participation rate for men increased only slightly, from 12 per cent to 14.2 per cent.

Women are pouring out of universities in much greater numbers than men. In 1997, 99,616 women received university degrees, compared to 72,120 men.

Men still earn more PhDs than women -- 2,519 compared to 1,395. But women earn more master's degrees -- 10,655 to 10,303 -- and far more bachelor's degrees -- 86,264 to 58,261.

Apart from a few disciplines, women have overtaken men in total enrolment. Women make up more than half of all medicine, dentistry, law and biochemistry students. They outnumber men in biology and pharmacy. They still lag in engineering, although the number of women in that field is up and the country's engineering deans are trying to drive the number up still higher.

Women are doing fine in most professional schools. Their numbers fall off in doctoral fields, making it hard sometimes for universities to find qualified women faculty members. Even so, almost 40 per cent of new faculty members hired in the 1990s were women, a higher share than their portion of total PhDs. In 1997, women accounted for 25 per cent of the professoriate, almost double what it was two decades ago.

Women not only enroll more often than men as full-time students, they're way ahead as part-timers -- 61 per cent to 39 per cent -- a reflection, in part, of women returning to begin or complete degrees after starting families.

The burgeoning female population on university campuses partly reflects a touchy subject in high-school education -- the "boy" problem. In most parts of Canada, girls do better in school than boys. They win more academic prizes and scholarships; their overall marks are better. Male dropout rates are much higher than those for girls. The pool of female talent ready for university is therefore larger than the male pool. No wonder, then, that women now outnumber men on university campuses.

Girls still shy away too much from math and science, partly explaining why female enrolment in engineering lags behind those for law, medicine and dentistry. Women's enrolment in business schools also lags, in part because so many students enter business schools after a number of years in the work force, years in which women may have started families. (Let's face it, in all but a few of the most "modern" of heterosexual relationships, women do more family and household work than men.)

Governments, to their credit, have launched initiatives to encourage more women to take math and science. But governments and school boards have been more reluctant to face up to the pre-university "boy" problem, perhaps because, for several decades at least, society's attention has been focused on improving opportunities for women.

In universities, those opportunities abound; in society at large, glass ceilings still impede women's progress. If women continue to pour out of universities in larger numbers than men, some of those glass ceilings should shatter over time.

At the other end of the income scale, however, women are in serious trouble. Every poverty study demonstrates that one of the core groups trapped on low incomes consists of single women with children and few skills. If schools have a "boy" problem, then they also have a problem with young women with children who either drop out or manage to finish high school but are impeded from finding work or continuing their studies because of family responsibilities.

University enrolments suggest these are the best of times for Canadian women; poverty statistics suggest they remain the worst of times.

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