World view: Numbers are irresistible

November 10, 2000

Women are overtaking men in universities, and some men are worried, writes Sheldon Rothblatt

Over its 800 years, university history contains startling continuities. While much of the medieval or early-modern university appears strange in retrospect, plenty remains to establish affinities with the present.

Yet revolutions have occurred that have transformed legacies, most notably in processed and applied knowledge acquisition. This is a revolution in a classic historical sense. Value systems compete and travel together for a time. Gradual accommodations occur. There are winners and losers. A world is lost and forgotten as the revolution becomes normative. The departmental structure of knowledge, now ubiquitous, appears to be immemorial, when in fact it is recent.

A second type of revolution is rare. It occurs with bewildering rapidity and appears late in university history. Accommodations are correspondingly more difficult, and memory persists. One such revolution that dominates all discussion of academic change today, endlessly debated in moods alternating between utopian and dystopian sentiments, is high technology, the global economy, the commodification of knowledge, competition for scarce intellectual capital and the consequent division of academics into dynamic entrepreneurs and old fogies.

But an equally momentous change, whose ultimate impact may be even more profound, seems not to fit the category of sudden change. It began 150 years ago, but the pattern was interrupted. The change slowed and softened and then returned with a terrific surge in the 1970s and 1980s. The mass entrance of women into higher education and into the mainline professions is a feature of the western democracies, but the change is also occurring in less free societies.

Statistics never tell the whole story. Given the possibilities of error, they are even misleading. Yet in the case of female students, numbers are irresistible. At the University of California at Berkeley, 54.1 per cent of 4,000 first-year students are women.

Around the world we see similar trends. In Italy, women studying engineering comprised a fairly surprising 17 per cent in 1988, in medicine a respectable 38 per cent. By the end of the 1980s, women's overall enrolment in Italy stood at 47.4 per cent.

In Denmark, figures for enrolling men and women were roughly equivalent around 1990. In Wallonian universities in Belgium, women rose to account for 58.5 per cent of first-year entrants in 1989.

A year or two later, women's participation in higher education in the former West Germany was about 38 per cent, but 44 per cent in the former East Germany. In Iran, the number of women reported in universities is astounding - nearly 60 per cent of entrants, even though they constitute perhaps only half of the school-age population. These percentages correlate with other data.

University enrolments are always dependent on schooling. The trends seen at higher levels are the result of successes below. Depending on country, women's examination results in most subjects, even in mathematics, are way up, and girls are proving to be not only good but even better students than boys.

Those of us who have been privileged to teach women who bear the responsibilities of raising children and earning money, have noticed the ambition, the discipline and the display of intelligence and flair. On campus, I passed a lady of some years wearing a loud purple T-shirt inscribed with the legend "Outrageous Older Woman". A significant fact, but I have yet to slot it into the paradigm.

Because revolutions are "incomplete" - from the perception of advocates they never go far enough - complaints are rife about glass ceilings, pool shortages in fields such as engineering, the small numbers of women in state and national politics in the United States (compared with other countries) and other occupational arenas where men outnumber women.

Salary disparities remain evident, and some lower-paid fields, such as nursing and school teaching that are historically the province of women, are still dominated by them. National Science Foundation statistics indicate that between 1984 and 1997, the numbers of women receiving first degrees in computer science in the US declined from 37 to per cent. Women in the information technology sector are about 20 per cent of the labour force.

Other criticisms isolate the failure of men to respond to the challenges of the "new woman". Men do not assume a fair share of household burdens. Some men still speak in the frat-boy language of sexual conquest. Some are uncomfortable in the presence of clever women. I suppose that deep down in the schools, where girls are showing their strength, adolescent boys are developing real neurotic potential - a recent book by a woman has argued that boys are being fast neglected.

A recent flyer from Berkeley's University health services announced a seminar on "Men in the workplace, finding our way in a changing work world". The seminar explored "how work impacts our self-esteem, well-being (and) relationships with both men and women". Is someone experiencing difficulties, or do we have an instance of a need created by a service?

The optimistic case is that extraordinary change has occurred in a brief time since the second wave of women's emancipation began. As the large numbers of university women enter markets and engage in public affairs, we will be able to conclude that the university does indeed possess eternal youth and has contributed to the greatest social transformation of all time. How willingly? Thereby hangs another tale.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley.

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