Australian men `failing to defend gender order'

April 14, 1995

Australian women are making spectacular advances in higher education and should no longer be considered disadvantaged, according to researchers at Monash University. In fact, they say, it is Australian men who could now be regarded as belonging to a disadvantaged minority.

Since 1987, more women than men have enrolled at university and the gap has widened until today, 55 per cent of commencing students are female.

Women also generally outperform men in many aspects of university life and appear to be advancing beyond men in the attainment of key professional credentials, the researchers claim.

In a report on the study, Monash sociologist Bob Birrell and three colleagues demolish what they describe as the myths surrounding women's involvement in higher education and the workforce.

They note that women are now gaining access to the nation's top universities at much greater rates than men. Of the eight major state capital city universities - including Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland, Monash and New South Wales - women make up well over half of first-year students.

"Historically, graduation from these institutions has opened a pathway into the nation's social, economic and political elite," the researchers say.

A similar situation applies with entry to the elite professions of law and medicine. The overall rate of female participation in medicine is 48.2 per cent, the same as the proportion of women in that age group. Yet in four of the nine big universities with medical schools, women freshers last year outnumbered males while in law women dominated in seven of them.

Although women continue to be predominant in the "typical" female fields of arts and social sciences, education and health, elsewhere they are making rapid advances. "With the exception of engineering, the days of female exclusion from other fields have gone," the Monash report says. "Even in veterinary science, women now predominate, comprising 57 per cent of newly-enrolled students in 1994."

The rise in the number of young women going on to university throughout the 1980s has resulted in a dramatic switch in the proportion of females and males in their 20s with degrees. By 1986, there were more tertiary qualified women than men in the 20 to 24 age group and five years later this progress had worked its way through to the 25 to 34-year-old category.

The larger numbers of women with degrees entering the workforce is also changing the gender balance in the professions. By 1991, for the first time, there were more female lawyers aged 20 to 24 than men whereas a decade earlier women had made up just 35 per cent of legally-qualifed Australians in that age group.

The report states: "If there is a 'gender order' which males are motivated to protect, they appear to have failed to defend it."

Assertions that women have difficulty putting their qualifications to work because of conflicting family commitments, limited career aspirations, prejudice or mismatch between the predominantly arts-social science-education qualifications which women hold and labour market demand in professional fields all appear to be myths, the researchers say.

Participation rates in the workforce among male and female 20 to 24-year-olds with degrees are similar. Even in the 25 to 34 group, when women are in their main child-bearing years, the decline in the proportion of those working is not major and seems to be decreasing over time.

Tertiary-trained women aged 20 to 24 appear to be more successful than their male counterparts in finding work.

The researchers concluded that female achievement in higher education and their subsequent entry into the professions will affect society at all levels. "Now that women appear to be advancing beyond men in the attainment of key professional credentials, men (and women for that matter) are going to have to rethink lingering traditional notions concerned with male-female roles in the workplace and the home."

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