“800 years of gender inequality”?

Tabatha Legett - News Reporter 1 March 2010

A study into postgraduate education commissioned by the British Library and Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has highlighted a recent trend of more women than men studying at postgraduate level. This statistic is not, however, reflected by Cambridge University’s student demographics.

The study, ‘Postgraduate Education in the United Kingdom,’ claims that female students outnumber their male counterparts by a ratio of 60:40. The figures show that “women now take 57% of full-time and 62% of part-time postgraduate degrees” and that “even in research postgraduate study, where men remain a majority, women now make up 48% of the student population (up from 45% in 2005).” The Telegraph reported on a study claiming that in twenty-five years, women could potentially fill 70% of university places.

Bahram Bekhradnia, co-author of ‘Postgraduate Education in the United Kingdom’ and director of HEPI, explained: “There is a mindset generally that girls are the disadvantaged group; not boys. While this might still be true of society as a whole, it is emphatically no longer true in higher education.”

The research showed that while women now have higher participation rates at all types of universities, Oxbridge continues to have a majority of male students. At Cambridge, women make up 47.9% of undergraduates, dropping to 43% at postgraduate level. The only colleges with more female than male students, excluding those that are women-only, are Clare Hall and Homerton.

Natalie Szarek, Women’s Officer for the Cambridge University Student’s Union (CUSU), told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “Although there is a national trend of women outperforming men at A-levels and a growing number of women are entering higher education, Cambridge is still struggling to shake off 800 years of gender inequality.”

She said the CUSU Women’s Campaign is working to ensure that “the gender disparity in academic performance and progression to postgraduate study in Cambridge is researched and addressed.”

Female-only colleges tend not to be as academically successful as mixed colleges according to the 2009 Tompkins Table. Murray Edwards, Newnham and Lucy Cavendish were placed 23rd, 24th and 29th respectively, out of 29 colleges. The study in The Telegraph also claims that men are over-represented in subject courses that lead to higher salaries. However, it acknowledges that women outnumber men in fields such as medicine and law, which also lead to lucrative careers. At Cambridge, the ratio of men to women in medicine is 48:52, and in law is 43:57.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, has been involved with research revealing that women are less likely to choose to study subjects like mathematics and engineering. He told TCS: “I’m delighted that women do opt to study subjects like medicine and veterinary science in equal numbers to men, and even outnumber men in other subjects.”

Tabatha Legett – News Reporter