The growing gender imbalance in higher ed: Where have all the boys gone?
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The growing gender imbalance in higher ed: Where have all the boys gone?

Higher education institutes have traditionally been dominated by men over the centuries. However since the 1970s there has been a big shift in the gender balance, reaching a tipping point in the 1990s when women began to outnumber men in university enrollments. This is not just the case in the EU, US, and Australia. Many countries in Asia like Brunei, China, Burma (Myanmar), Hong Kong, and the Philippines also show this trend, with Malaysia and Thailand being extreme cases in this region.

This gender imbalance is not restricted to the traditional women’s areas of study like law, arts, language, nursing, social work, and psychology, etc. Although men still dominate fields like business, engineering, science, and ICT in the ‘Western countries’, women here in Asia are now also beginning to dominate these traditional male fields as well.

Females make up more than 64% of enrollments in Malaysian universities and almost 60% in Thai universities. The gradual decrease of males participating in higher education, has led to a massive over-representation of women to the general population ratio, which is bound to have significant effects on society over the coming generation.

Women are much more likely to attend a university than men today.

This represents a massive paradigm shift that will change cultures within societies, the structure of the family unit, and even challenge the current economic and political status quos in the future.

However, before looking at the above potential consequences of this gender imbalance in more detail, it is important to have a look at the root causes of this trend that have been suggested and canvassed by academic researchers.

Some Malaysian and UK researchers have suggested that women are performing much better than men in university entrance exams, thus excluding males from university at the entrance point. Even though it has been generally considered that males are better at disciplines like mathematics and physics, evidence indicates that a poor showing of males during secondary schooling accumulates in a poorer academic ability at university.

Other researchers believe that this poor academic showing by boys in general could also have something to do with lower levels of motivation in boys. Boys seem to have more disciplinary problems and require more remedial assistance than girls. It has also been cited that Malay boys generally mature later than their female counterparts.

Statistics indicate that boys have higher school dropout rates than girls in secondary school. It is generally easier for men to make a living in the informal sector without going to university. They also have the option of taking up agriculture, construction, or joining the armed forces. Many get in with their peers and join gangs, and in the worst case scenarios get involved in crime and drugs. Both Malaysia and Thailand have drug epidemics that both governments are trying to fight at this moment.

(RELATED: The other gender gap: Boys falling behind in global education)

Boys don’t seem to want to take on the commitment of taking on a student loan to study at university, which takes some years to pay back. There is also some evidence that boys in general have lower career aims than girls. This could have some cultural bounding where boys, particularly those from rural areas, are very hesitant to be different and excel from their peers.

On the contrary, girls seem to see this as a good investment in their futures. Women prefer to work in an office, rather than a blue collar environment. This drive may originate from girls sense of responsibility to supporting their parents and families, which drives them throughout their working life.

It has also been suggested where girls are outperforming boys is through their non-cognitive abilities. Girls appear to be more focused, self-disciplined, better organizers of their time, more attentive to their assignments and homework, more collaborative in their studies, and willing to get help if they have problems, than boys. There may even be an inbuilt teacher bias towards girls who tend to be more attentive in class than the boys. These are all important elements in getting good grades, where boys may have suffered. At present there doesn’t appear to be on any measurement mechanisms in course quality evaluations at universities on this issue.

The above indicates a grave problem, where males have fallen behind in literacy (in the traditional sense) over the last two decades, something which the secondary education system has to date failed to grapple with.

On the push side, there appear to be fewer cultural barriers for girls to undertake further study and careers than in the past. The expectation that girls must get married and have families is not as strong as a generation ago. Parents are now much more amenable for their daughters to pursue careers. There is now much more acceptance of single career women in both Thai and Malaysian society today. One can see many single career women in Thailand, or those who couple up with another career woman to share a household. In Malaysia, Malay women still prefer to marry, but are now more prepared to marry down. For those who marry, two spouse working families are now the norm, where the notion of the wife being a homebound mother and care provider has long disappeared.

The gender imbalance at universities over the last decade has resulted in a major increase of women in the workforce, and this should be set to continue for the rest of the decade. Women are now entering occupations which require job specific skills from the level of clerk to director in both private and government sectors. More managers are expected to be women.

On a positive note, the pay gap in Asia is narrowing. Power relations between men and women in the workplace are also radically changing.

On a generational timescale this is going to produce substantial demographic and cultural changes to societies within the region.

First, marriage may decrease as women seek similarly educated men or choose to follow career paths, in what some academics call the marriage squeeze. This could extrapolate into lower birth rates in the next generation which could lead to many of the economic issues now facing post industrial countries where birth rates have been falling for years.

In the long term, business, economic, and political power may look very different to what it looks like today. The traditional male bastions of ‘school ties’, ‘club memberships’, and other ways of peer networking will be challenged with the new dynamics of the changed demographics. How this will affect business and public policy is impossible to tell as yet, as there is still not enough history and data about women operating on mass within organizations such as a company, the professions, or the public service. For example how will economic theory be shaped, disseminated, and taught by female academics in the future? We can’t be sure as of yet, but the gender bias will have some bearing on future policies and ethics of organizations in the future.

We can be sure that social values will also change in the future, based upon this changing demographic. Husbands could be much more subservient to their wives and sacrifice their careers for them, reversing the assumed norm of the past. We will see more househusbands taking on the chores of homemaking and child care while the wife pursues her career.

The cultural concept of the man as head of the family is something that is rapidly being taken over by women.

Women have transformed the stereotype of being wives, child bearers, and the one who runs the household to a career person. Women are becoming very independent within the university environment, after transiting from the protective home environment. If you observe inter-gender relations on campuses today, you will see how girls ‘get their way’ with the male cohort, who are in the minority, and lead both in class and extracurricular activates.

Education is a future source of wealth. The current imbalance will redistribute wealth towards the female gender over the next generation. This could lead to a squeeze on economic opportunities for males who drop out of school, and aggravate current trends in crime. Higher education is a necessity to advance, and presently the female gender see this differently to males.

The gender imbalance will most likely swing more excessively towards female participation in higher education because the informal sectors within the Asian region are deeper and more diverse than those of the post industrial world. Therefore something must be done to equalize the ratio of males and females participating in higher education in a non-discriminatory way to women.

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Pic: AP.

This most probably means revisiting the current pedagogy of secondary education in both Malaysia and Thailand. Curricula must be made more interesting to boys to keep them involved with the school system. Here learning how to be creative and innovation should be given more importance than content. After all content is now easy to access via the internet. How to use this information is what boys need to learn. In addition this curriculum must be delivered in ways that that connect with the learning styles of boys. This means a massive revision of mode, assignment structure, and assessment modes, tapping in on the visual-spatial strength that boys tend to learn by. This means much more audio-visual content rather than books, which boys seem extremely hesitant to read. This needs to be taken out into the real world focus where boys can excel. They must be introduced to technologies and taught how to use them appropriately. The mentoring of students should also become a much more important aspect of teaching strategies.

Changing the paradigm may also require diversifying the ways students can enter universities. Within universities themselves, the nature of many courses also needs to change through really using objective and problem based learning structures to meet the designed outcomes of what a student should be competent in. This could mean revolutionizing the way business, agriculture, and engineering should be taught. Universities need to be more ‘hands on’ orientated to bring up the boy to girl ratios.

This could even mean redefining the whole concept of what literacy really means, and widening the concept to include various tactile and technological aspects.

Otherwise women will continue to dominate both the workforce and become the largest group of entrepreneurs as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor figures for Malaysia and Thailand now indicate. Alcoholism, drugs, and related problems will become more prevalent by males in society, where many will feel a sense of economic hopelessness.