Letting Women Shine: Undoing Gender Inequality in Education

Australia’s Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne recently defended Budget changes that will make education highly unaffordable for most Australians. To add insult to injury, he used a sexist argument. On ABC Australia’s 730 Report Pyne was asked about the collective concerns of Australian Vice Chancellors, who fear the proposed increased university fees will create further inequity, especially for women and economically disadvantaged groups. Pyne argued that women go into teaching and nursing and that these courses won’t cost as much as the courses that men take.The problem here is that Pyne fails to recognise that women actually study a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Moreover, given his portfolio, it is startling to hear the Education Minister speak so flippantly about women’s higher education debt given that countless studies show women are severely disadvantaged within women-dominated fields, and beyond. There’s a lot that the Minister might learn by looking at the research on gender disparity. Taking a leaf out of Japan’s economic policies, Mr Pyne would see exactly why women are at the heart of their economic reform.
Undoing Gender Inequality
Undoing Gender Inequality

Australian Education

Minister Pyne says:

“Now, women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn, and vice chancellors in framing their fees, their fee structure, will take that into account. Therefore the debts of teachers and nurses will be lower than the debts, for example, of lawyers and dentists.”

When leaders speak this way, it sends the message that equality in education is a low priority. The University of Western Australia’s Student Guild Women’s Department decided to show Christopher Pyne that it’s important to acknowledge women’s vibrant interest in STEM.

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Thankfully other world leaders are taking women’s education issue more seriously, albeit not simply in support for equal rights. It’s out of economic and social necessity.

Japan: “A Place Where Women Shine”

In January, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe argued that in order to grow Japan’s GDP by 16%, women’s leadership in the workforce had to become a social policy imperative. He writes
"Japan must become a place where women shine." Via World Economic Forum.
“Japan must become a place where women shine.” Via World Economic Forum.

“Japan must become a place where women shine. By 2020, we want women to occupy 30% of leading management positions – a goal that presupposes a more flexible working environment, as well as support from foreign workers to take over domestic and personal services. A major impetus for change will come in the form of legal reforms, to be introduced at the next parliamentary session, that will increase the number of external directors on corporate boards.”

What’s the difference between these two nations’ political positions about women’s economic roles?

Like many developed nations, both Australia’s and Japan’s fertility rate is dropping and creating a social policy crisis, but Japan’s fertility rate is amongst the lowest in the world. Japan faces an ageing population which will stagnate economic growth and drain social services. Since the 1990s, Japanese women have been opting to go into higher education in higher numbers while also choosing to delay marriage and childrearing. These choices are motivated by their rejection of traditional roles for women. More specifically they don’t want to be disadvantaged at work.

Australia is also facing an ageing population, but currently things look a little better. Australia has a far higher number of women doing Bachelor degrees (57%) compared to Japan (43%) and even more doctorate women students (49%) compared to Japan (33%) (see below). Japan’s “leaky pipeline” (the rate of attrition of women in STEM) is dire and it is having an impact on other areas of social life. The need to support women’s career and family aspirations can no longer be ignored.

Women in Science: Australia and Japan. Via UNESCO. Click to enlarge

The Australian Government is in a relatively lucky position; while other nations have stronger representation for women in STEM education, the situation is, on the surface, not so bad in Australia. But this is only because free higher education was introduced in the mid-1970s, and later replaced by a deferred repayment scheme from the late 1980s. The deregulation of university fees will make education less affordable than ever before. Fewer students will be able to pay off education debts.When faced with this inequality, will Australian women be pushed out of STEM or will they make a different choice, as Japanese women have done? Things look even less rosy when we look at wage disparity.

Pay Differences in Women-Dominated STEM Fields

There’s no doubt that we need more teachers and nurses. Although these roles are traditionally skewed towards women, it should be noted that men generally earn more in women-dominated fields. University of Technology Sydney Professor Wendy Bacon’s research shows that men have higher starting salaries across the board, including as “high school teachers (1.4%), primary school teachers (3.2%), registered nurses (3.7%) and management and organisation analysts (4.7%).” Bacon says:

“You’ll see that there are a lot more women in the public relations field than men, but nevertheless, there’s more than a six per cent difference in the starting salaries for men in public relations. So, not only is there gender differences between fields and that reflects education, but then even within fields that are female-dominated you can still find that men get higher salaries there, so that really needs more investigation….Three per cent doesn’t sound like much, but it can be the difference between what sort of flat you’ll live in, whether you’re going to go on a holiday, if you see yourself as ever being able to get a house – and that’s very tricky for most graduates.”

The same gender disparity can be seen across professional fields where women dominate in other countries, such as in the USA.

Gap between sexes in woman-dominated fields. Institute for Women's Policy Research. Via
Gap between sexes in woman-dominated fields. Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Via Market Watch
Women’s disadvantage becomes further entrenched as it takes women even longer to pay off student debt. So an increase in higher education inequality is not something to shrug off and leave to chauvinistic ideas about what fields women go into study.

Undoing of Gender Inequality

In Sociology, we talk about how gender is a social construction. This means that very little of what we think of as masculine or feminine can be adequately explained by biology. People’s bodily differences (their “sex”) has little bearing on their abilities to take on tasks, such as education or work in STEM fields. Culture, including institutions such as the Government and the education system, socialise us to the acceptable ways in which men and women should behave. Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman have shown that humans learn to “do” gender from the moment we’re born, which is why gender norms seem so hard to change. And yet change it does, across place and time. We see this in how different societies think about gender in non-binary ways.

Inequality is built into the way in which we do gender: masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity. The things that men do that makes them masculine give them greater power and freedom. It’s no accident that men are paid more for the work they do, as being a man once meant being the sole breadwinner. During the industrial revolution, women’s work became confined to unpaid work at home, although it had not always been this way. As men’s work became highly specialised, women’s work became undervalued. This is why today, women-dominated fields are paid poorly, yet when men perform the same tasks as women, their work is better rewarded.

In order to meet the challenges of the future in a new economic milieu, we need to start undoing gender. This means institutional change and letting go of gender stereotypes that women are better suited to some types of roles over others.

As Japan now knows all too well, poor social policies and lack of industry regulation creates an untenable situation for women. Leaving individuals to fend against institutional barriers gives women little choice. Japanese women have been opting to escape traditional inequality by making fertility choices that are now having a national impact. Governments that lack foresight underestimate women’s desire for flexibility and choice.

Australian officials should be encouraging more women to succeed in diverse degrees. This is not done by making off-the-cuff comments that deny the inequality women already face in higher education, let alone in traditionally women-dominated workplaces. Ignoring women’s contribution in non-traditional fields is also a mistake. A strong, economically thriving nation places women at the centre of its roadmap to success. Leaving behind half the population comes at a high price to individuals, families and national growth. Japan has learned this the tough way. What will it take for Australia to face the future and learn from our neighbours? Beyond the moral imperative to seek out fairness for all Australians, inequality is simply bad business.

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