Undoubtedly, women have experienced a dramatic transformation in access to higher education in Scotland. While once a rare and shocking prospect, university is now seen as a basic right for women and decades of campaigning has won them their rightful place amongst men in universities. In fact, the number of female students now outnumbers male in many Scottish higher education institutions. However, there is undoubtedly still progress to be made as gender imbalance in many faculties still exists and the representation of women in male-dominated subjects still poses a hurdle.
Visiting the Museum of the University of St Andrews depicted an institution steeped in rich history and strong-held traditions which have stood the test of time. For example, the distinctive red gowns worn by undergraduate students remain a symbol of the University. While undergraduate gowns were once popular in ancient Scottish universities such as those in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, St Andrews remains the only one of those four universities to retain this practice into the twenty-first century.
Another interesting piece of information gathered from my visit was that while the UFniversity, which is the oldest in Scotland and the third-oldest in the English-speaking world, was founded between 1410 and 1413, women were only permitted to attend in 1876. For over 450 years, female students were not admitted into the University. And it was only 189 years after that, in 1895, that Agnes Forbes Blackadder became the first woman to graduate from St Andrews at the same level as men of the time. Today one of the University’s Halls of Residence is named Agnes Blackadder Hall in her honour.
Blackadder’s story is interesting the gender ratio of students is 58 per cent female and 42 per cent male as of 2012. This is a trend across Scottish universities as the BBC reported that nearly six out of ten first year students at Scottish higher education institutions are women. This depicts the leaps and bounds women have made in Scottish education in the comparatively short time they have been able to participate. This is also apparent across the border in England as recent figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) also show that “for the first time in the near millennium” the University of Oxford has admitted more female students than male students at 1,070 female undergraduate students compared to 1,025 male students. This is generally attributed to women outperforming their male counterparts in schools and gaining better exam results and also purely because more male students drop out of school and do not continue into higher education.
The same study by BBC, however, also highlights the continued gender imbalance in certain courses. 85 per cent of Scottish students studying engineering are male, for example, depicting the relatively low participation of women in traditionally male-dominated subjects. This is further supported by the fact that in classes for more ‘feminine’ subjects such as nursing, 90 per cent of students were women. This demonstrates that there needs to be more support for the inclusion of women in subjects that deviate from the traditional nurturing caretaker roles. These sentiments are echoed by the head of the Fawcett Society, Sam Smethers, who notes that “women are still underrepresented in math, science and engineering subjects” and therefore, this is only a step, albeit a significant one, in a long battle against gender imbalance in education.
While finding the causes of gender imbalance in certain fields in difficult to explain, several leading educators have offered possibilities.
It appears to be a general consensus that far fewer women choose to study physics, for example, at Highers or A-Level and are therefore unable to apply for STEM subjects at university which have subject-specific entry requirements. According to Susannah Lane, head of public affairs at Universities Scotland, “gender inequalities in schools are one of the biggest barriers to achieving gender parity at university.” This is supported by the Chief Executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service Mary Curnock Cook who claims that the “sex gap in education begins long before university choices are made.” To combat this, several university departments, such as civil, environmental and geomatics engineering department at University College London, have removed subject requirements for applicants. Also, more effort needs to be made to encourage women to study STEM subjects at school to open up more possibilities at university level.
Another issue is the prevalence of “gender stereotypes that all too frequently determine subject choice” and discourage students from applying to certain subjects “which are seen to be traditionally male or female.” Physics, engineering, and other STEM subjects are still seen as masculine subjects and need to be promoted as more appealing and welcoming for women. These traditional stereotypes are equally harmful to men who are discouraged by social censure from applying for ‘feminine’ subjects such as teaching and nursing.
Ayrshire College had launched a Strategic Plan between 2014 and 2017 to “challenge gender stereotyping in career and learning choices.” Their plan was comprised of several projects such as social media campaigns, short films and events like the annual Girls in ICT Day and Ada Lovelace Day. They have also attempted to “encourage boys and men into female-dominated sectors like care” using the #ThisManCares campaign.
West College Scotland has also unveiled a female-only computer science course to promote the subject with women and address their underrepresentation in these industries. However, the irony is that this is creating another gender imbalance, just in favour of the opposite party.
The Scottish Funding Council remains committed to bridging this gap by following a Gender Action Plan. One of the main goals outlined is to prevent a percentage of gender imbalance “greater than 75/25” in any subject, a target that will be enforced in 2030. Indeed, there has already been progress in other male-dominated subjects such as mechanical engineering and building services.