The Feminist Mistake?

By: on May 26, 2017 |


You already know about the big gender crisis on Canadian campuses.

Whatever the debate or discussion point − diversity, Canada’s economic future, the role of basic research or the purpose of higher education – a single problem comes up over and over again. There aren’t enough females enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM needs more women.

“Gender imbalances persist in the innovation and research sphere, where women continue to be underrepresented in STEM, both at universities and colleges,” frets the 2017 Federal Budget. “At school and in the workforce, women account for less than 30 per cent of STEM students and professionals.” This was part of the Budget’s first ever “gender analysis”, designed to “ensure that women are more successful in our economy,” in the words of Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

And these words are being translated into action. Last year I interviewed Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of the University of Waterloo, following a press conference at the United Nations in New York City where he was the sole Canadian representative among a coalition of ten internationally renowned universities (Oxford, Georgetown, Hong Kong etc.) promoting greater female representation in STEM subjects. “I am proud that Waterloo is taking the lead for Canada’s university sector,” he said. “There is an important and serious role for universities to play in establishing a long-term, sustainable plan for gender equity… Women can be as good as any guy in math or physics.”

Across Canadian universities, women currently comprise 39 percent of total STEM graduates. The ratio is most uneven in engineering (23 percent) and abstract sciences such as math and computing (33 percent). To correct the gender imbalance at his school, Hamdullahpur has created a host of special programs and inducements: summer science camps exclusively for girls in grades six to eight, on-campus recruitment efforts for female high school students, $12,000 female-only undergraduate STEM scholarships, gender equity research grants for faculty, and plans to increase the number of female STEM professors and chairs to serve as role models. Many other Canadian universities have made similar efforts.

Yet while Hamdullahpur may be entirely correct in asserting that females are underrepresented in STEM areas, it seems equally necessary – particularly given the attention and funding this issue currently receives − to point out that this is not the biggest gender imbalance on Canadian campuses. The real crisis is happening everywhere but STEM. And it doesn’t involve women at all.

The bigger campus gender crisis

Women are a minority in programs heavy in math and computing, but they’re a majority in nearly every other course you can name. Often an overwhelming majority. Of the 13 broad categories of university subjects tracked by Statistics Canada, nine graduate more females than males. Education is 76 percent female, health 75 percent female, life sciences 55 percent female, humanities 64 percent female. Even business, law and social sciences such as economics are now predominately distaff.

Across Canada, women account for 56 percent of all post-secondary students and 58 percent of all graduates. They’ve been in the majority since the early 1990s. While the University of Waterloo may style itself as a national champion of gender equity, its slim majority of male students is the result of an intense focus on STEM subjects. As such it’s an extreme outlier from the rest of the country. And given current and well-established trends, we can expect Canadian campuses to be dominated by female students for decades to come.

Although the numbers clearly show no systemic prejudice against women overall in higher education, Hamdullahpur argues the male-majority gender imbalance in STEM alone constitutes a pressing threat to our country’s future prosperity. And he argues it is the result of “man-made myths and obstacles” that push women into softer sciences such as nursing or other nurturing-type programs like teaching and social work. “Why do we have so few women studying engineering?” he asks. “It is because we told them: ‘you cannot be good at this, so you should do something else.’”

There’s no doubt men and women make different choices when applying to university. According to recent StatsCan research on the phenomenon, even among male and female high school graduates with similar levels of mathematical ability, “Young men [are] always more inclined to choose STEM programs than young women.” Sketched broadly, girls seem drawn to programs that involve human contact, boys opt for more solitary pursuits. It’s an interesting dichotomy, but is it really a problem in need of correction?

As for complaints that engineering schools in particular are sexist enclaves that deliberately make life uncomfortable for female students, an exhaustive review of current research on retention rates in engineering programs by the University of Saskatchewan engineering faculty and presented at the 2015 Canadian Engineering Education Association meeting found no consistent evidence that attrition is higher among women, as would be expected if they were subjected to systemic sexist behaviour. (Drop-out rates for the University of Waterloo’s first year engineering class are the same for men and women.) Of bigger concern for the U of S investigators was the fact female students who dropped out displayed lower levels of self-confidence than male drop-outs and expressed more displeasure with the traditional engineering school style of learning that emphasizes abstract problem-solving and excessive workloads to ‘weed-out’ weaker or less committed students.

If the campaign to boost female representation in STEM proves successful, more women who already plan to attend university and show an inclination for math and science may be convinced to major in those subjects. It’s also possible that the preponderance of special summer camps, scholarships and other inducements will convince some girls to attend university (and enroll in STEM courses) who otherwise might have chosen a different path. If this proves to be the case − and if every STEM degree program in the country were to reach gender parity − the overall ratio of females to males in Canadian universities would rise to approximately 62:38.

The rise of uneducated men

STEM programs are the last male bastion on Canadian campuses. Take this away and we can expect men to retreat even further from undergraduate studies: perhaps to the point of irrelevance. Research in 2015 by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario reveals that while 43 percent of female high school students register for university, only 32 percent of male students do likewise. To understand why, economist Abigail Payne of McMaster University in Hamilton and a co-author tracked 130,000 students over ten years. Their results suggest the bulk of the gender gap phenomenon is explained by choices made in the first year of high school. Girls going into Grade 9 are more likely than boys to choose university-track courses; boys tend to ‘aim lower.’ Yet even girls who begin in lower level ‘applied’ courses show a stronger ability than boys to move up to the academic stream during their high school careers. Females simply seem to have a greater drive to succeed in education. “Large differences between females and males in early high school course choices and outcomes translate directly to large differences in entry to university,” Payne and her co-author conclude.


The STEM-focused University of Waterloo is one of the few in Canada where male students outnumber females.

“Boys are underachieving at an alarming rate,” agrees Mark Fedy, a teacher at St. Mary’s High School in Kitchener, Ontario. A large part of the reason for the gender gap, he argues, is that high school curriculums have become increasingly girl-friendly in recent decades by putting greater emphasis on exposition and writing skills over the active learning styles typically preferred by boys. “We’ve got all sorts of push to create opportunities for girls, but there’s just not the same level of support or concern for boys,” he says, adding that “it’s time to shine the light in a different spot.” After watching the annual graduation ceremony at his school distribute a variety of female-only awards – including one exclusively for the girl with the highest mark in Grade 12 chemistry − Fedy set out to bring some gender balance to the event by trying to find a sponsor for a male-only award. He’s still looking. “The optics would be bad for a boys-only scholarship,” he was told by one well-funded Catholic charity. Similarly, Brian Hendley, former Dean of Arts at University of Waterloo, was serving on a provincial university oversight committee when he once suggested that nursing schools should do more to attract men, given the severe imbalance in gender ratios. “I was laughed at,” he recalls. “The general response was: ‘Aren’t you a wit.’ No one thought it was worth worrying about.”

While a shortage of women in STEM is treated as a national emergency requiring the attention of the federal budget, the opposite problem in every other area of study at universities across the country attracts only amusement or indifference. Asked if he intends to offer male-only summer camps or scholarships to boost the presence of men in University of Waterloo’s programs that are overwhelmingly female (optometry: 67 percent female, biology: 65 percent female), Hamdullahpur dismisses the topic out of hand. “That’s not a burning issue for me,” he says.

If we expect our universities to act as meritocracies – offering admission to the most qualified students and hiring the brightest professors – then perhaps males have nothing to complain about. They aim lower in middle school, show less academic success in high school and underperform women when (or if) they arrive at university. Boys get, in other words, what they deserve. And yet it appears university administrators have convinced themselves, based on observed gender ratios, that “man-made myths and obstacles” are what’s standing in the way of greater female participation in STEM. And further, that this situation requires immediate remedial action and plenty of resources. If so, then surely the same evidence, logic and concern ought to apply for the much bigger problems faced by men across the rest of the post-secondary universe. Or does a commitment to gender equity only apply to one gender?

Want more Trumpkins?

Gripes over the unfairness of university gender polices and lack of interventions for male students can’t be dismissed as mere cranky men’s rights bellyaching. Due to the tremendous importance of post-secondary schooling in the modern workforce, educational underperformance by men today risks future economic underperformance for the entire country. As the Conference Board of Canada warned late last year, the labour force participation rate for poorly-educated young men is falling at an alarming rate. “Men who cannot or choose not to pursue higher education now face much poorer job prospects than did their predecessors 25 years ago,” it noted with some discomfort. The Conference Board also pointed out that angry, disenfranchised males were at the core of Donald Trump’s chaotic drive to the White House. Earlier this year, Statistics Canada reported there are 55 percent more young men (aged 25 to 34) without a high school education than young women.

As the economic tide increasingly turns against men – driven by their lack of access to university education and the erosion of manufacturing − we can expect to hear much more from these grumpy young men. Millennial-aged males, for example, are 50 percent more likely to be living at home with their parents than women of the same age. The labour force participation rate for women is up strongly in Canada, in contrast to the male trajectory. And women are also far more likely to have a pension plan (especially a highly-coveted defined benefit plan) than their male counterparts, suggesting life after work will also prove to be far more pleasant and rewarding for women than men in coming decades. With all this as backdrop, obsessive handwringing over gender gaps in STEM seems not just insignificant, but a real obstacle to Canada’s future success.

“If we don’t address this problem, we are going to see bigger shortages in our employment sector,” says McMaster economist Payne of under-educated males. “And,” she adds, “men will end up doing worse that women.” Someday we might even consider it to be a burning issue.

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About Peter Shawn Taylor

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo.