Who's the weaker sex now?

October 31, 2003

Men go to university to play hard whereas women go to study hard, so it's not surprising that males are now being outshone on campus as well as at school.

Alison Goddard reports on the latest research

Macho culture is to blame for men's underachievement at school and university, according to new research, sparking calls for remedial action.

The number of British men going to university has stagnated, and those who do attend tend to be less diligent and achieve less than their female counterparts.

Women now comprise 55 per cent of British first-year full-time students.

Indeed, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the growth in student numbers since 1995 can be attributed to more women entering higher education.

Between autumn 1995 and 2001, the number of British first-year students starting full-time higher education increased 10 per cent to 420,000. But the total number of males fell 1 per cent over the same period, while the female population rose 21 per cent. While boys' underachievement at school is well documented, the figures suggest the problem is now impacting on higher education.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Liverpool, said:

"There are two factors operating here. One is the improved relative performance of females to males at school since the introduction of GCSEs in 1988. Subsequently, girls have overtaken boys at A level, both in terms of the number of passes and the proportion of A grades. More females are getting the qualifications to go into higher education.

"The other aspect is that women are no longer leaving school and getting temporary employment until marriage. They are looking towards careers for themselves, and they see higher education as a step towards that."

Moreover, women work harder and do better than men in higher education.

Research from Brunel University last week demonstrated that women are more diligent students. And, for several years, they have achieved a higher proportion of first and upper-second-class degrees than men.

The Brunel study found that even on reaching university, male students worked less hard and achieved less than females. Despite having the same A-level grades on entry, some 35 per cent of men were awarded a 1st-class or 2:1 degree in geography, compared with 65 per cent of women.

The study was based on 200 students who were tracked over four years. It also found that different assessment styles - coursework and exams - did not account for differences between the performance of the sexes.

Fiona Smith of Brunel's department of geography and earth science examined how differences in degree results could be accounted for by gender. She found men were more interested in socialising and sporting events while women focused on their studies.

She said: "Improving male educational achievement will not be achieved by simplistic remedial action. We need to work with students in small groups to explore their dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity.

"We need to raise awareness of the consequences of identifying themselves with a macho culture that glorifies socialising and sport and denigrates hard work.

"Only by challenging such constructions can we make a positive difference to male achievement while not compromising the success of female students."

Dr Smith conducted a survey of 120 students and held in-depth interviews with 37 male and 36 female students. She found:

* Women were more conscientious and more likely than men to attend all the lectures and to use learning resources regularly

* Women were more likely than men to find tutorials useful, believe the marks they received reflected their ability and do most of their studying at home rather than in the library. Men were more likely to use the library and the internet for study

* Women chose their university primarily because of the course, whereas men made their choice for reasons unrelated to academic considerations, such as location and sporting facilities.

* Male students were more likely than female ones to miss lectures and tutorials because of other commitments.

Dr Smith said: "The survey debunks the previously held opinion that the academic gender gap is purely a school phenomenon.

"Most women feel getting good grades is the most important part of university life. They believe they need to work harder to compete in the male-dominated environment they will encounter at work. Good grades are viewed as an insurance policy for success. But it's not just a case of women doing better -they actually perceive more value in education than men. If we are to redress this balance we need to persuade men that education is a valuable investment."


* Ethnic minority women are either poised to overtake their male counterparts or have done so, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show. In autumn 1995, 44 per cent of British Asian students starting higher education were women. By autumn 2001, that had risen to 48 per cent

* Within the Asian population, more Indian women than men now go to university, and Pakistani women are fast catching up with males

* Indian and Pakistani women comprise 70 per cent of female British Asian students; their participation rates rose by 50 and 80 per cent respectively between 1995 and 2001

* The number of British Bangladeshi women going to university has more than doubled over the same period, to 1,335, and the figure for British Chinese women has also seen a healthy rise

* The corresponding increase between 1995 and 2001 in the number of British men from Asian backgrounds is half that for women. But their overall numbers remain higher because so many more of them entered higher education in 1995

* Black British women had already outshone male counterparts by 1995, when 52 per cent of black students starting higher education were women. By autumn 2001, that proportion had risen to 58 per cent

* Between 1995 and 2001, numbers of male black Caribbean full-time first-year students fell 4.7 per cent. Overall, male black British student numbers grew 10 per cent to 6,850, compared with 45 per cent for women, to 9,535.


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