Women still face educational barriers

Don't put away female only scholarships just yet.

In his Feb 22 article, Josh Dehaas asserts “to claim that women are at a disadvantage in school is absurd.” The more absurd reality is policy-makers are more likely to listen to his argument than to look at the facts.

He argues women are now equal, and affirmative action scholarships no longer necessary. Well, it’s great that his woman friend received one, but I meet an awful lot of women students each semester who don’t. I don’t generally ask them why they aren’t part of this mythical horde of privileged women we hear about these days, but the more I get to know them, the more I realize some of the reasons why. And I realize that as long as we live in a society where women are more likely to be sexually assaulted, to be victims of severe forms of violence, to earn less than men, and to be the ones heading up single-parent households, they’re going to face barriers to their education that men don’t. I’ve gotten some fine scholarships over the years. Then again, I didn’t have to face those life situations I just listed.

Dehaas and his friends’ informal tallies tell them there are more women than men in their journalism classes. On the other side of the academy, Engineers Canada reports that “the enrolment of women in undergraduate engineering programs increased until the year 2000. The number of women enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs has since leveled off and there are signs of a decline in the percentage of women pursuing engineering in relation to men. Currently, less than 20 percent of undergraduate engineering students in Canada are women.”

Don’t put those scholarships away yet.

More women enrolling in university doesn’t mean we’ve beaten inequality and discrimination. All it means is there’s more women enrolling. That’s a good start.  But it’s little more than a start. Women still earn 70 per cent of male earnings. Why does this matter? Because that means when men and women try to put themselves through university, women wind up 30 per cent  more in debt. Add in the fact that the majority of single-parent households are headed by women, and they’re even more in debt if they have children. Suddenly those scholarships make a whole lot of sense.

But aren’t things getting better, as Dehaas’—very selectively chosen—statistics seem to suggest? Well let’s not just look at his handful of success stories: let’s look at the big picture. The Canadian Federation of Professional and Business Women’s Clubs states the wage gap for university-educated women has actually increased by seven per cent during the last decade—to the detriment of women.

Status of Women Canada drew on Canada Student Loans Program data to learn that between 1996 to 2002, the percentage of loans obtained by women has increased (by over five per cent) and decreased for men (by over five per cent). That means women are bearing a significantly larger portion of debt in this country. This also indicates a growing—rather than decreasing—employment income gap between female and male university graduates to women’s disadvantage.

A 2001 study that appeared in the journal, Canadian Public Policy, calculated projections into the future that suggest a wage gap of 22 per cent will still exist in 2031. And those are the rosier stats.

Don’t put those scholarships away yet. And while Mr. Dehaas may have more female classmates, women comprise less than a third of his university’s Senate.

The upshot of all this is that the absurdly simplistic notion that greater female enrolment equals greater equality in Canada is, well, patently absurd. The same day his article was published, a submission to the United Nations on equality in Canada indicated our country has slipped from 47 to 49 in world rankings for gender equality. That’s a serious fail. Until we start achieving real substantive equality, and stop sliding backward, women will remain disadvantaged and discriminated against in this country. Until men stop feeling threatened by efforts to make society equal, we’re not going to start making the progress we need.

So when I encounter a man who complains about being passed over for a scholarship, I ask him to look at the big picture. Women have suffered centuries of violence, exploitation and abuse while men have dominated society for over 2000 years. Enjoy your 30 per cent higher salary, and your statistically greater chance of becoming a CEO, or successful lawyer, or Member of Parliament. Not because you’re smart, but because you’re male.

Hans Rollman is a PhD student in Women’s studies at York University.

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