Minding the Gender Gap?

In a recent seminar, it was revealed to us that, at this university, as at many others, you’re more likely to get a first class or upper second class degree if you’re female, with the university target being 50:50. The tutor asked us how lecturers et al. might go about addressing this gap, to make things more equal.

But -as someone pointed out – given inequality in the workplace, why would we want to do this? A recent report in Times Higher Education highlighted that graduates who get the same degree classification, from the same university, having studied the same subject, are likely to earn more if they’re male.

If these graduates were doing the same job, that would be unlawful. So something else must be going on to explain this difference. And research has pointed us to quite a few reasons why this might be. Michelle Ryan‘s research on “the glass cliff” shows that women are typically more likely to be appointed to more risky leadership jobs than men. And findings from the Institute of Leadership and Management show that women are less ambitious than men in their career aspirations, and less confident in what they could achieve.

And some research has looked at factors that reduce the discrepancy between men’s and women’s performance at university level. Interestingly, such as teacher prejudice, university resources, and prior academic aptitude do not account for these differences (McNabb, Sarmistha, & Sloane, 2002).  One study by Gibb, Fergusson and Horwood (2008) found that males’ classroom behaviour can explain the gender difference in later attainment, echoing research by Hartley and Sutton (in press) showing that boys in primary school stereotype themselves as less academically capable than girls.

So – while research in the workplace has shown up definite reasons for the gender gap between men and women’s earnings, the reasons for why university performance differs, although researched, seem much more elusive.

The effect of improving men’s university performance vis-a-vis women’s might be counter-intuitive, and lead to greater gender equality in the workplace. However, until we know the reasons behind the performance difference, we can’t be sure that reducing it will have positive long-term benefits.


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