The gender gap in university admissions and beyond

Published 11th May 2017
One of our student ambassadors from the University of Oxford, Wenyi Gaia Shen, discusses the current gender gap in university applications, with 100,000 more women applying to university than men. However, if we look more closely, the gender divide is reflected in the choice of subject, with maths and computer science being heavily male-dominated.

In 1878, University College London became the first British University to open its degrees to women, admitting for the first time women to the Arts, Law and Science Faculties on equal terms to men. One year later, Elizabeth Orme graduated from UCL, going down in history as the first woman to earn a Bachelor of Laws in the UK. Fast-forward 130 years from the age when women were denied the possibility of earning a university degree to the present time, and the number of women being admitted to university nowadays has considerably surpassed the number of men accepted into higher education. This year, the gap in university admissions between the sexes has reached a record high level in history, with over 100,000 more women applying to university than men.

As reported by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), in 1996 there was virtually no gender gap in university admissions, with male students comprising 49 % of total acceptances. Two decades later, the gender gap has become one of the most distinctive features of applications, doubling in size since 2007, according to the latest report released by UCAS. Young women in England are now 36 % more likely to apply for a university course than their male counterparts, and the gap is particularly distinctive when considering those from poorer backgrounds, where women are 58 % more likely to apply than men.

Looking more closely at the statistics per undergraduate courses, female students currently outnumber men in almost two-thirds of degree subjects in the UK. Men nevertheless remain over-represented in most STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, with the biggest differences registered in computer science and engineering. In this case, the gender gap has widened steadily in a direction contrary to the overall trend, reaching a high peak this year of over 20,000 more men than women undertaking such degrees. Women, on the other hand, particularly dominate in subjects allied to Medicine, Education, Arts and Design, with the biggest gap in Nursing, where women outnumber men twelve to one, with 22,000 more women accepted in 2015. Women are also ahead in areas such as Law, History, Philosophy, English and Biology.

Unsurprisingly, the gender make-up of each university is a reflection of the types of subjects offered at each institution. Some twenty institutions, including Cumbria University, where Education and Nursing are the most popular courses, and mainly universities specialising in art and design, have twice as many female fulltime undergraduates as male. In contrast, Imperial College London – a science, engineering, medicine and business institution – is one of two institutions where men count for two thirds of the undergraduate intake. Generally speaking, Russel Group Universities tend to have a more balanced intake, with Oxford and Cambridge admitting slightly more men than women every year into their courses. Nonetheless, the widening of the gender gap in admissions throughout the last decade is visible in the data concerning those institutions as well: King’s College, for instance, has seen its male undergraduate intake from 41 % in 2006 to 37 %, while the gap between male and female students accepted into the University of Edinburgh has doubled in the last nine years, and women now constitute 62% of first year undergraduates.

But what is the reason behind the growing gender gap in university admissions, and how does this data affect the future? Should we be concerned that an increasing number of young men seem to be less interested in attaining higher education? Mary Curnock Cook, the UCAS chief executive, believes “…this is an issue that needs addressing. If it was the other way round there would be an absolute outcry…”, citing that there is a “deafening policy on the issue” and that the school system is “letting down the potential of young men”.

Some educationalists have suggested that the reason behind the increasing gap between the genders in higher education is to be unearthed by looking into young men and their motivation. Some argue that men do not possess a desire as strong as their female counterparts to achieve high levels of academic success. This, in conjunction with the deterrence caused by the rise in tuition fees, means that young male students feel uninspired to pursue further education, opting instead for apprenticeships and courses such as bricklaying and plumbing to enter immediately into the professional world. This argument seems particularly compelling when considering that white boys from poorer backgrounds constitute the group least likely to go to university, as they are 42 % less likely to apply than females from disadvantaged families.

However, the trend in university admissions can be also seen in a positive lighting, as an indicator that more and more women in the UK are now confident in their academic abilities and empowered to pursue their ambitions in higher education as a result of a successful long struggle around women’s right to education – a struggle that is still ongoing in many less developed countries. Nonetheless, critics have not desisted to point at the phenomenon as evidence of a disillusioned climate so eager to dismiss any suspicion of misogyny that the once male-dominated higher education institutions are now ‘overcompensating’ by providing female students with opportunities not available to their male counterparts. Some stereotyped explanations, in fact, have blamed the trend on the methods and techniques used to prepare pupils for their GCSEs and A-levels, suggesting they are more ‘angled’ towards female students and that female teachers are part of the reason. These critics, however, have to be evaluated against a context which shows that there is no significant academic difference between young women and men at a pre-university level, with last year registering the smallest gender divide in A-level results in almost two decades.

Ultimately, the issue should not be turned into another ‘battle of sexes’. The gap between the genders in university admissions can in fact only be tackled by focusing on the socio-economic gap and, in particular, on the demotivation of young men from disadvantaged backgrounds. Moreover, it would be a misstatement to say that measures have not already been taken to tackle the issue: according to the Office for Fair Access, almost a third of universities are now running outreach activities, including taster subject sessions, talks with role models and mentoring through local football clubs, aimed at encouraging young men to apply to university.

All in all, in trying to address the issue, it should not be forgotten that women are still facing challenges in university and beyond, from “lad culture” on campus to the poor promotion prospects for female academics. Despite the government’s prioritising, subsidising and campaigning to incentivise female students, STEM subjects, traditionally seen as ‘male subjects’, are still dominated by men, and at least some of the increasing interest of women in pursuing a university degree can be explained in light of the shift in applications for female-dominated careers such as nursing and teaching. Moreover, female students may be motivated to consider a university degree as worth pursuing because of financial incentives, with female graduates earning three times as much as women without a degree, as opposed to male graduates earning around twice as much as other men.

Most of all, as the gap between genders in university admissions hits a record high, it is necessary to consider how this reflects on the students’ future after education, when young female and male graduates enter the professional world. It would not seem unreasonable to suppose that the growing confidence, witnessed in the last two decades, of young women wanting to invest in their potentials with a higher education degree translated into success in the job sector as well. Nevertheless, as reported by the Equal Pay Portal, the gender pay gap in the UK remains at 19.2%, meaning that the average British female employee still earns around 80p for every £1 earned by a man. This would be down from 23% in 2003 and 28% in 1993, as noted in a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), but has not varied significantly since 2013. More in particular, according to a research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, this reduction in the overall gender pay gap does not apply to the mid-level and highly educated, for which the gap has essentially remained the same as it was two decades ago. The overall decrease, in fact, would be attributable to “more women becoming highly educated, and a decline in the wage gap among the lowest-educated”, as stated by Robert Joyce, associate director at IFS. Therefore, even if the number of women graduating from university has become in the last twenty years considerably higher than the number of male graduates, female graduates still earn less than their male counterparts, even where they have studied the same subject, as reported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Law is a particularly good example of a ‘female dominated’ subject at university which translates into a mainly ‘male-dominated’ working environment. Last year, 15,995 women were admitted to study law at university, almost two thirds of total acceptances, with a record high gap of 30 % between the genders. The gap was lower two decades ago, although female students were already over-represented in law courses in 1996 in comparison to their male counterparts, making up 57 % of acceptances. Such percentages are carried on in the profession, with 61.5 % of training contracts in 2012/13 going to female law students, as reported by the Law Society. Nevertheless, the EHRC reports that the biggest pay gap among graduates is in the legal profession, with women starting on an annual salary of £20,000, around £8,000 less than men. “Most graduates will get jobs” – as stated by Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) – “but not on large graduate training schemes, rather with small businesses and local firms.”

Yet, gender inequality is definitely visible in major City law firms too, as well as in the judiciary. On average, female trainees make up, again, almost 60 % of incoming intakes at major commercial law firms, and this figure carries on at the associate level. However, in 2014, as reported in the Gender in Law Survey by the Chambers’ Student Guide’s, less than 20 % of partners in Magic Circle firms and US firms were women, despite efforts to promote greater equality of opportunity. Therefore, it is clear that even though female lawyers have made up over 50 % of new trainees since 1993, they are still not advancing to higher positions. The same issue affects the judiciary, with women making up only 20 % of High Court judges.

In essence, such statistics are a strong indicator that women’s educational success, overall, is not being carried through to the workplace. Female lawyers, as well as professionals in other sectors, are struggling to reach the most senior levels, creating a lack of female representation in the highest-paying jobs and industries and in leadership positions. In the end, much of the issue comes down to women’s career aspirations, the disproportionate impact of parenthood and a remaining unconscious bias towards female professionals and flexible working. Not surprisingly, many female graduates are actually moving into lower paid professions, and the gender pay gap widens considerably after a woman has children, as female employees receive 33% less pay an hour than men after they have their first-born, according to a research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.