Women are second sex no longer, Hepi argues

Report says men, not women, are now the more disadvantaged in higher education. Melanie Newman reports

June 7, 2009

Higher education policymakers are like “generals fighting the last war” because they are still treating females as the disadvantaged sex despite evidence that the reverse is true, according to an influential think-tank.

The Higher Education Policy Institute says in a report published today [7 June] that female students now outnumber males across all types of institution, whereas previous reports have suggested that they dominate only in “lower-status” universities.

Women are also more likely to achieve a “good” (first- or upper second-class) degree than men, according to the report, Male and Female Participation and Progression in Higher Education.

Official estimates put the 2007-08 initial participation rate in higher education at 37.8 per cent for men and 49.2 per cent for women. Despite whatever may be true in society at large, it is “emphatically not the case” that women are disadvantaged in higher education, Hepi’s report says.

“In the same way as the relatively poor performance of females previously gave rise to concerns that large numbers were being excluded from the benefits that follow from fulfilling their potential, so the same concerns now arise with respect to males.”

The think-tank berated policymakers for continuing to treat males as advantaged. In its paper, it speaks of a “determination to minimise the significance of the growing inequality in the rates of participation”. The report says: “Sometimes those involved with higher education policy give the impression of being like the generals fighting the last war.”

Nervousness over leg-up for boys

Policymakers are nervous about any measures to increase participation by boys, Hepi adds. The think-tank cites remarks by the Higher Education Funding Council for England about Aimhigher’s “Boys into HE” project. Hefce supported the initiative, but it said that nothing should be done to imply that “we are seeking to reduce the participation of girls and women”.

Hepi’s paper says: “There had been no corresponding cautionary statements in relation to earlier Aimhigher initiatives aimed at girls, like the projects to encourage girls to study engineering.”

The report also criticises the Government for implying that male disadvantage in education is acceptable because women face disadvantages in the workplace. “It does not help one disadvantage to perpetuate the other,” the document states.

Becky Francis, professor of education at the University of Roehampton, said male underachievement in higher education was a reflection of gender constructions in wider society. “There’s a tendency in society for academic application to be constructed as feminine and male achievement to be constructed as effete,” she said.

She agreed that Hepi had a “valid point” in that higher education policymakers had paid inadequate attention to male underachievement. “It’s a valid concern, but I wouldn’t argue for a refocusing on men at the expense of women. We have to hold on to the important point that in terms of outcomes such as pay rates, being male is an advantage and that the subjects dominated by men such as engineering are also ones that are well remunerated and in which there are skills shortages. So the concern that women are not entering those subjects is valid.”

‘Castration anxieties’

But Louise Morley, professor of education at the University of Sussex, criticised the report for framing women’s achievements as a crisis for men.

“This report is full of castration anxieties,” she said. “The author refers to the ‘dominant position of females’… The report, like feminisation discourse itself, is underpinned with the semiotics and imagery of greedy, rapacious women taking over the academy and desiring too much. It is evocative of the obesity hysteria. Women’s ‘over-performance’ is women getting too big. They are newcomers who do not know their place. It is a see-saw analysis – if one group is up, the other must be down. Gender relations are more complex, and more akin to a jigsaw than a see-saw.”

Angela McRobbie, programme convener for the MA in gender and culture at Goldsmiths College, University of London, said boys’ underachievement was “an incredibly important topic”. However, she was a “little suspicious” of organisations and campaigns that suggested that “everything was fine” with young women, she said. “There’s an implicit argument that young women have unfairly benefited from support and attention at the expense of young men. From there, it’s easy to move towards an explicitly anti-feminist model that is about turning the clocks back, which is a flawed model.”

Like Professor Francis, she blamed boys’ underachievement on the culture of “macho anti-intellectualism” that had developed in the past 15 years. “Twenty years ago, being a good citizen and demonstrating intellectual capacity were not seen as feminine values. We’re seeing an assertion of panic-stricken masculinity,” Professor McRobbie said. This situation grew out of changes in popular and political culture as the pro-feminist attitudes of men in the 1970s shifted to resentment of female competition, she suggested.

‘Culture of failure’ among boys

Ann Phoenix, professor of psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, has found that boys believe they cannot be masculine if they are seen to be working hard at school. Boys fear being bullied or labelled gay for doing their homework. Professor Phoenix’s research has shown that this attitude prevails regardless of race and social class, although its effects are more pernicious among the poorest boys.

Professor McRobbie believes that it is time to reopen discussions about sexual politics. “Boys need to be shown that there’s nothing wrong with swaggering masculinity, but that some of these values in popular culture are counterproductive because they’re producing a culture of failure,” she said.

It has been shown that girls today feel a cultural pressure to be “hyper-feminine” and to be more concerned with appearances than intellect. However, Professor McRobbie said, girls have been more successful at channelling this interest productively. “The girls who are anti-academic, who are the counterparts of the underachieving boys, are working in areas connected with femininity such as beauty therapy and performing arts,” she said.

Boys are suffering from a lack of opportunity in areas of the labour market that are seen as masculine, she added. “The jobs in manufacturing that non-academic boys would traditionally have been orientated towards have been replaced with jobs in the service sector, where qualities seen as feminine are more in demand. What to do with non-academic boys now is a big political question, but the answer does not lie in arguments that girls are succeeding at the expense of boys.”

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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