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Why Women Outnumber Men at University and Earn Less After

Recently I read a fascinating report by Julie Hare, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne entitled Why Women Outnumber Men at University and Earn Less After. In her report she talked about the tipping point for women entering university in Australia as possibly being associated with Gough Whitlam’s nation modernisation platform in the 1970s, which included making university attendance free. 

Hare noted that in the 1970s, female enrolments moved from one in three to parity with male enrolments within ten years. This has grown whereby in 2020 women now represent on average 55.5% of enrolments at Australian universities. Furthermore, women are far more likely to complete their studies than men, with recent government data showing 65.5% of female students who enrolled in 2013 completed their degree within six years, compared to only 60.3% of men completing their degrees in the same time period.

On the surface, if enrolment and completion rates were the primary factor contributing to professional success in terms of seniority and financial remuneration, we could anticipate that women would have achieved professional parity by now. Sadly, this is not the case. Indeed to the contrary, men still outperform women after they graduate in terms of both seniority and salary.  More specifically, according to a 2019 Grattan Institute report, female university graduates are expected to earn 27% less than men, A$750,000 in today’s terms, over their working life. 

Hare explored the reasons why women appear to fail to capitalise on their higher-level educational attainment relative to men. In particular she cited possible reasons including:

  • “self-selecting segregation” whereby half of all annual female job commencements are in feminised, lower-paid sectors such as teaching, nursing and childcare
  • built-in bias as to how certain careers are valued; for example childcare (female dominated) jobs pay poorly but construction (male dominated) jobs pay well
  • social expectations and personal preferences around child rearing that result in 80% of men, compared to only 40% of women, being in full time employment at 35 years of age 
  • self-perpetuating corporate cultures
  • gender biased recruitment practices.

At a time when Victorians are experiencing a once in a lifetime pandemic and a subsequent national recession, I have been saddened but not surprised to see that it is women who are not only losing their jobs at a faster rate than men, they are also being less supported by emergency government stimulus. According to research and analysis conducted by The Australian Institute, between March and April 2020 the number of women employed fell by 5.3% compared to 3.9% for men and the number of hours worked by Australian women also fell faster with women losing 11.5% of their hours compared to 7.5% for men. 

There are no easy answers to this most challenging economic time however, it is my hope that policy and decision makers in Australia can, as the OECD researchers state, ensure that all policy responses to the crisis “embed a gender lens and account for women’s unique needs, responsibilities and perspectives”. In this way the professional gains in seniority and salary that have been made by women since the 1970s will regain a positive trajectory to the ultimate goal of parity in the future as we all emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Deborah Priest