Why Are Men Falling Behind in Universities While Women Speed Ahead?

In ever-increasing numbers women are finding success at Canadian professional schools

Illustration by Zoe Barcza
Illustration by Zoe Barcza

In 2004–2005, following six straight years of increased enrolments, over one million full- and part-time students registered at Canadian universities. It was a historic first, and today, on top of a burgeoning undergraduate population, there are currently more than 90,000 students enrolled in master’s programs and roughly 35,000 doing their doctorates. Despite higher tuition fees and in many cases more rigorous entry requirements, young Canadians have clearly embraced higher education. Many of these students are positioning themselves to compete in a globalized economy rooted in innovation, services, and information-based technologies.

Beneath this rosy picture, however, lies a sobering reality. Among other studies, a 2004 report by Statistics Canada called “Where the Boys Are” reveals that in terms of high-school reading skills, educational engagement, and university enrolment, young men are lagging significantly behind similarly aged females. Although men sometimes outpace women in enrolment growth, for two decades the percentage of males versus females entering university has dropped steadily, and men now represent just 42 percent of total enrolments. Moreover, their higher dropout rate means that they will represent an even lower proportion of graduates. It appears that in terms of higher education it is women who are flourishing; by comparison, young men seem to be on autopilot.

In undergraduate streams, females are more likely to complete their degrees; there are now more females than males enrolled in master’s programs; and, whereas ten years ago over 60 percent of doctoral students were men, today the numbers are approaching parity. In ever-increasing numbers women are finding success at Canadian professional schools. Two decades ago, women represented less than 40 percent of lawschool graduates. By 2003, nearly 50 percent more females than males graduated from Canadian law schools. Last spring, at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University law-school convocations, female students won the gold, silver, and bronze medals. At the University of Calgary females took home the top two law awards. In medicine, there are similar trends. While in the mid-1980s, roughly one-third of Canadian med students were women, in each year since 2001 more females than males have graduated from Canadian medical schools. This year, 57 percent of first-year students at the University of British Columbia medical school are female, as are 60 percent at the University of Toronto, and over 75 percent at the University of Montreal.

It is true that males continue to outnumber females in mathematics, computer science, engineering, architecture, and business, but even in traditionally male-centred fields women are in the ascendancy. Female engineering students now represent almost one-quarter of the total, up from 15 percent in the early 1990s, and at business schools, there is a significant upward trend in female enrolment. In growing numbers, females are pursuing mbas at the country’s elite universities, some of which are catering to the needs of women who already have a career and, perhaps, a family, as with the University of Western Ontario’s new twelve-month mba program at the Richard Ivey School of Business.

“What is going wrong with men at universities?” a father and lawyer asked us. He was distraught and demanded anonymity. His daughter is soaring in a professional program at a prestigious university while her dropout brother languishes in the basement, he explained. Theories abound about male underachievement, but part of the answer is that universities themselves have changed. With students paying more to get in, large numbers of dedicated older students on campus, more overseas students (roughly 7 percent), and higher numbers of graduate students, there is a level of seriousness to university life that was less obvious in the past. Young men, it appears, are less acclimatized to this new environment and less prepared to compete within it. More to the point, perhaps, the women’s movement, combined with special attention paid to female success and learning styles at the elementary- and high-school levels, is paying dividends. Large numbers of independent-minded females believe that their earning power will be significantly enhanced by obtaining university degrees with stellar grades attached. They are staying in school longer and delaying other life choices.

Superior high-school grades and a stronger societal expectation that they attend post-secondary school are the most obvious reasons for the surge in female enrolments. But some observers believe that this trend will self-correct over time. In 1969, before the rapid growth of the Canadian university system, women represented only 36 percent of the undergraduate population (and less than 15 percent of university professors were women). This disproportion favouring males began to change in the 1970s, and, as society became more integrated, the male domination of university enrolments was destined to diminish. By 1981, females constituted 47 percent of undergraduate enrolment.

Today, while that integration is far from complete, certain shibboleths of the past have fallen by the wayside. For one, the notion of man-as-provider has largely given way to two-earner families and an even greater degree of independence on the part of young women. The result is that women, long underrepresented in many fields of study, are pursuing higher education in general and areas of specialization with social cachet in particular. The questions are, has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, and will the numbers even out?

Could it be that young men are aware that women continue to drop out of male-dominated professions when they decide to start having families (or to have another child), and, as such, that they do not try as hard now in order to succeed later? Or is it just that the later maturation of male adolescents has begun—now that the expectations for young women to attend university are more manifest—to translate into higher rates of female participation, and that male adolescents fall behind and fail to catch up? Or is it something else?

One thing is certain: we live in a highly competitive society where skills need to be constantly upgraded. Here, there are trends on campus disturbing some registrars and professors, and not just in Canada. In numbers significantly greater than men, young women are honing their skills by taking advantage of remedial programs. A 2005 University of California, Los Angeles study noted that female students surveyed reported “more frequent interaction with faculty and teaching assistants [and] higher levels of academic engagement.” The same report stresses that female students take greater advantage of university services. Echoing sentiments expressed by others, Marion Hannaford, the associate registrar at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, says, “When workshops or seminars on study skills, time management, exam-taking and the like are offered, it is rare to see a male student sign up voluntarily, and even fewer attend.” To their obvious detriment, it could be that young men are hard-wired not to accept help from others.

Some observers speculate that female students are being driven to succeed by the growing number of women on campus in positions of responsibility. Whereas women were once seen in large numbers only in administrative jobs, the number of full-time female professors has risen to roughly 30 percent, and today there are more and more women leading the charge. The dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business is a woman, as are the deans at the University of Toronto’s faculties of law, medicine, and applied science and engineering, to cite just two schools. While there remain wage differentials favouring male professors, greater numbers of strong and learned female role models in key positions on campus are sure to be having a formative influence on a new generation of younger women.

As evidenced by a spate of academic studies, government reports, and newspaper and magazine articles, in the United States public and political concern about male underachievement is on the rise. Clearly, it’s not that young men aren’t smart enough. In its 2005 study, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, concluded that while 53 percent of the test-takers were female, male high-school students outperformed females in sat verbal and math scores by a combined total of 4.2 percent. Also in 2005, a study published by the British Journal of Psychology confirmed past American and international findings that males score higher than females on intelligence-quotient tests by five points. In competitive, spirited, and individualistic academic challenges we often see men excel to a greater degree than young women. While some might want to distinguish between Einstein wannabes and trivia buffs, in Reach for the Top competitions over the past ten years, 84 percent of championship-team members have been male, and only twice has there been more than one female on a winning team.

Canadian concerns about male underachievement may increase as early testing becomes more regular and standardized. In Ontario, for instance, academic- achievement tests have become the norm, and student progress is being charted from early elementary school through high school. Outside provincial programs, in 2004 testing done by the oecd’s Programme for International Student Assessment, it was discovered that in all ten Canadian provinces girls demonstrated superior reading skills. There is a growing concern that this difference in reading ability flows directly through to one’s university experience, placing young men at a significant disadvantage.

In a fall 2006 Globe and Mail article, Ian Brown refers to the “modern feminized university,” an institution where traditional models of teaching have been replaced by a more co-operative, feminine model of interaction. Marion Hannaford, once a faculty of education instructor, has a similar diagnosis of the effects of pedagogical changes broadly instituted at the high-school level. She argues that teaching methods are now heavily biased in favour of girls. “Everyone has become aware of the learning needs of girls, but we’ve just forgotten about the boys,” she says. According to Hannaford, the competitive learning that comes naturally to males has been replaced by collaborative learning styles better suited to girls. Jim Sentance, an associate professor of economics at the University of Prince Edward Island, watches his son show signs of disengagement with school and suggests that the legitimate feminist complaints about pedagogy have been turned on their head. “While the old learning style favoured males, the new emphasis on discussion, participation, following instructions, and meeting deadlines has moved us in the other direction. Boys don’t see a lot of point in working hard on assignments when the grades are just shared out to others,” says Sentance.

Hannaford, Sentance, and others seem to share the view that boys have a different, more active learning style that isn’t being catered to. But most public school federations, parent-teacher groups, and school boards take umbrage at such a notion, and would have to be convinced that the curriculum and teaching styles have been overly feminized. Indeed, female teachers express as much concern as anyone about male underachievement. Nonetheless, the issue of role models remains, and while in 2004–2005, 53 percent of Canadian elementary and high schools had male principals, the number of male teachers is in steady decline.

As it turns out, many young men may feel that relying on university education is not essential for success. A recent study by University of Guelph economists Michael Hoy, Louis Christofides, and Ling Yang suggests that while women do earn more with university degrees than they would with high-school certificates, men are still likely to earn more money than women with equivalent levels of education. The 2001 census revealed that men with a high-school certificate and minimal post-secondary education earn approximately $10,000 more than women with the same qualifications. For those with skilled trades certificates, the gap between men’s and women’s wages increases to about $17,000. In science and business, men are also more likely to be promoted and to earn more money than women. Such realities may send the message “Relax!” to younger generations of men, who do not feel they need to put in the same effort as young women do.

A favourite theory of media watchers is that young males have been receiving endless “You’re a dork!” messages, and an entire generation is now living up to those low social expectations. They are proudly thick, just as London’s disenchanted 1970s youth—told for years that they were punks—learned to glory in their alienated, society-be-damned subculture. Since the 1970s, according to this line of argument, cartoons, advertisements, and sitcoms have avoided showing females in a negative light because doing so guarantees sharp criticism from advocacy groups. By default, then, when the media depict incompetence and stupidity it is typically exemplified by a male: the self-proclaimed underachiever Bart Simpson having trouble understanding the simplest things, while sister Lisa invents perpetual-motion machines; Red Green (“I’m a man, but I can change”) reinforcing the bungling male stereotype; the somewhat gentle Beavis and Butthead; the more direct Trailer Park Boys.

“[Males] have been anaesthetized by a ‘boy culture’ that celebrates bravado, lassitude, and stupidity,” says Pat Clarke of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. And a culture of male mediocrity may be exacerbated by what University of Western Ontario professor of sociology Roderic Beaujot calls the longest adolescence in history. In “Delayed Life Transitions: Trends and Implications,” a 2004 report published by the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, Beaujot points out that by 2001, over 40 percent of children in their twenties lived with their parents (a dramatic increase from 27.5 percent in 1981). Whereas people in the early 1970s on average married in their early twenties, couples are now putting marriage off until their late twenties, and women are putting off having children even longer. The reasons for this later entry into adulthood are complex, but include the decreased value of youth labour, the challenge of competing with baby-boom success, and the need to become established in careers.

Some sociologists speculate that young men are having problems getting motivated because they are unsure about their role in today’s world. Young males were once heavily parented and socialized to be the breadwinner, the guardian, the domestic hero; everything revolved around them, and they were forced to develop a sense of duty. There was also both a carrot and a stick: if they didn’t buckle down, they would not get the girl, who demanded, above all, a provider with sound economic prospects. But few young women today—independent, educated, sexually confident, and with ready access to contraception—look to young men as lifetime supporters.

Australian psychologist and author Steve Biddulph says that part of this shift is related to the change in traditional family structures and specifically the lack of a father as role model. He calls the present crop of young males among the most under-fathered in history. Many boys are brought up by divorced or single mothers—since the 1960s the percentage of single-parent households has risen steadily in Canada—with fathers playing only a transitory role. Grandparents, uncles, friends, coaches, and others attempt to act in loco parentis, but this too is transitory, and those boys who grow up in standard nuclear families often have fathers perplexed and hesitant about what lessons they should teach their sons.

Boys growing up without a male role model at home and hard-pressed to find one among their teachers are at considerable risk. Especially in the elementary years, where female teachers represent a large majority, there is always the danger that young male students faced year after year with female teachers will begin to resent them as authority figures and switch off learning altogether.

Of all the possible explanations, the notion of a loss of the male role in life, especially for the disadvantaged, seems the most profound. The 2003–2004 US Department of Education report cited above states that of those undergraduate students from low-income backgrounds attending post-secondary institutions, just 40 percent were male. For students from high-income households, the gap narrowed substantially, 51 percent for females and 49 percent for males. For low-income Hispanics, the figures were 61 percent for females and 39 percent for males. And for low-income African-Americans, the gap widened to 64 percent for females and 36 for males. The clearest evidence in Canada of this role conflict may come from First Nations communities, where the divide between male and female university attendance is acute. Patricia Monture, a Mohawk scholar who teaches in the department of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, says: “An elder once explained to me that these days First Nations women don’t have the same kind of role conflict that men do. First Nations men don’t have their role and identity anymore. But women still have this island of identity as mothers. When we start trying to get our lives together we have some little bit of ground to stand on. The men just don’t.”

While Canada does not chart social change patterns using race-based statistics and indices to the same degree, it seems that here too, across the racial and income divides, young males are losing “their little bit of ground to stand on.” They tend to drift, avoid, and play. For so many of them thirty might be the new twenty, but the real clock keeps ticking, and eventually it is too late to think about a long income-free period to acquire a university education.

The problems facing young men at Canadian universities are part of a much broader trend, according to the 2004 Statistics Canada report “Where the Boys Are.” In the wake of the growing debate about the educational experience of American males, a group of academics, educators, and public commentators formed The Boys Project. Under the leadership of Judith Kleinfeld, a psychology professor at the University of Alaska, this initiative “seeks to accomplish for young men what The Girls Project so successfully accomplished for young women—to increase academic skills, to increase college success, and to develop the confidence, drive, and determination to contribute to American society.”

The Boys Project’s view of the problem is that “a large, sullen, poorly educated group of men will not keep the nation vital in the twenty-first century. The nation needs the energy, initiative, and ambition of its young men as well as its young women.” Consider these statistics gathered by the Project on gender disparity in the United States: for every 100 women who earn a master’s degree, 62 men earn the same degree; for every 100 girls expelled from public elementary and secondary school, 335 boys are expelled; for every 100 females aged 20 to 24 who commit suicide, 624 males of the same age kill themselves; for every 100 women aged 18 to 21 in correctional facilities, there are 1,448 men in correctional facilities. The Canadian numbers are not as dramatic, but the trajectory appears much the same.

Can anything be done about male academic underachievement? Based on the experience with women, we have an extensive set of tools that can be applied to underachieving males if we so choose. Summoning the will won’t be easy. Possibly related to a prevailing view that women still need to catch up in terms of income equality and penetrating male-dominated fields, there appears to be little interest in addressing male underachievement through new public policy. More locally, most university senates are still a long way from implementing programs to specifically attract and benefit males.

But the starting point for meeting this challenge must be an open discussion of the problem and a frank airing of views about the causes, consequences, and solutions. Schools, parents, universities, and the media can each tackle male underachievement in different ways. Given broad public awareness of the issue, schools would be empowered to act on male learning needs. Parents would realize that their sons cannot be left to find their own way, that they require firm guidance. Wide recognition of the problem should end media clichés of the dumb and dumber males and inspire some deep thinking about the appropriate role of the twenty-first century male.

Articulating the appropriate role of the male is the greatest challenge. Negative messages—stop being lazy and do your fair share of the housework, stop avoiding your child-rearing obligations, don’t expect a wife or mother to keep running after you—may be reality checks, but they do not create aspirations. In a rapidly changing work world, where the promise of low-skill high-wage jobs is diminishing, young males need to envision a positive role for themselves.

American universities and colleges operate in a more competitive and diverse environment than do their publicly funded Canadian counterparts, and certain US public and private educational institutions practise affirmative action, selecting students in part on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and other attributes. But having generally won the high-school competition with young men, impressive and accomplished young women should not be blocked from their preferred post-secondary institutions by virtue of the very success of the female cohort. Likewise, in Canada, it would be a fundamental error to turn the success of young women into a justification for limiting their access to preferred universities. The task is not to strip young women of opportunities, but rather to motivate young men to be more competitive, to do better at school and university, and to enter graduate and professional programs the same way young women have: by being the best among their peers.

Two decades of declining proportional university participation seems less than a mere societal correction, and ignoring the apparent widespread disengagement of young men could result in a huge loss of human capital for Canada. Our education systems need to collaborate on defining the problem and in providing solutions. Parents need to be told that the issue is national and not limited to the video-game addict in their basement bedrooms. Universities, particularly those short of students and uncertain about their economic prospects, have a tailor-made opportunity to enhance their enrolments through the careful and deliberate cultivation of potential male applicants. Despite record numbers, many of Canada’s universities have fewer applicants than they desire and they would benefit from developing the messages and programs necessary to reach out to young males.

The most cursory review of contemporary Canadian society reveals that while some women have broken through, men remain very much in control. Women are still seriously underrepresented in corporate boardrooms, provincial and federal cabinets, and in the senior administrations of public institutions. Will this change in the near future as the growing pool of well-qualified, highly motivated, and extremely capable women wend their way through the workforce? If not, we have ahead of us a bubbling cauldron of conflict, dissatisfaction, and social distress. We’ll have one large group of men blocked from progress due to their failure to keep up academically, while another cohort of eager and highly educated women finds itself stymied in its attempt to reach the top.

Ken Coates
Ken Coates is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a faculty member at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Regina. He has previously worked at universities in British Columbia, New Zealand, and New Brunswick, and he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. He has published widely in such diverse fields as northern Canadian history, Aboriginal rights and society, and science and technology.