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Equalizing Program Participation

As a current 4th year student at McMaster University, I have had the privilege of observing a beautiful campus with a wide variety of programs, ranging from social science, humanities, and creative arts programs to physical sciences, engineering, and technology-based programs. At first glance, it would seem that the gender ratio is distributed quite evenly throughout Canadian post-secondary institutions.

Some raw numbers will help put this into perspective: according to Statistics Canada, in the 2008/2009 academic year, students who identify as female accounted for 55% of undergraduate students in Canadian universities, 58% of master’s students, and 47% of doctoral students. According to these numbers, the participation of female-identifying students in university outstrips that of male students. Why then am I talking about gender participation in post-secondary education?

Here’s the thing: the problem doesn’t lie with sheer enrolment numbers; indeed, these suggest an equitable gender ratio. Rather, the issue lies with program participation. Academic program participation varies widely by gender – but why does this issue exist, and how can it be addressed?

There are age-old common perceptions that many individuals will express, which seem to be the root of the issue. To get an idea of what students thought I surveyed 30 random students from a variety of different programs on a university campus, and asked them two questions: ‘What programs do you believe to have more male students’ and ‘what programs do you believe to have more female students?’

I expected that students would generally assume that most male-identified students would be enrolled in engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, or computer sciences, while the majority of females would be enrolled in the social sciences, humanities, health-related courses such as nursing, and educational programs. The survey, while only a small and informal demonstration, displayed that 93% (28 out of 30) students responded with answers that fit within the parameters of my hypothesis, suggesting that there is an overarching bias attached to certain programs.

This could suggest that many students may feel pressured to conform to standards set by historically traditional occupations. (i.e. Male-identified students may feel the need to pursue mathematic-based programs such as engineering because this is generally reflected by media and pop culture. Conversely, female students may feel the need to work towards communication, health, or educational programs for the same reason.) Undergraduates need to feel confident and comfortable in their chosen program, and should be able to make their decisions based solely on what their strengths are and what career path they would like to choose.

The wage gap between genders is also affected by the disproportion of males and females in certain programs. The most recent data (2011) from Statistics Canada suggests the wage gap in Ontario is approximately 26% – meaning for every $1.00 earned by a male, females earn 74 cents. While the gap has been slowly narrowing over time, the disproportionate distribution of genders in specific programs can play a contributing role in the wage differences, among other factors. Occupational segregation in lower-paying jobs can be caused by a lack of equal participation in specific programs, such as engineering or computer technologies. Think about this: although young females represented the majority of university graduates in 2011, women accounted for only 39% of all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science) graduates. This may have a negative impact on equal wages.

I would recommend more research be done on this topic, so as to identify any and all reasons as to why women are not choosing these programs. Furthermore, research should be conducted on the undervaluing of occupations, specifically those that tend to be female-dominated, such as health-related positions, communication-based positions, and educational professions. Gender role stereotypes and cultural norms can be factors that restrain women’s occupational choices. If there are boundaries, such as gender bias or stigma, attached to certain degrees and occupations, they should be addressed and discussed in order to empower students and alleviate any pressures they may face in their decisions regarding program choice.

Joseph Palladino
Campus Researcher, McMaster Students Union