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In recent years, concerns have been raised about a growing gender gap in Canadian education. Just 20 years ago, a smaller proportion of women than men had a tertiary education, and a key challenge was to make higher education more accessible and welcoming to women. While the challenge remains in some of the mathematics, computer, and engineering disciplines, the overall gender imbalance tipped in women’s favour in Canada in the early 1990s.1
Many are asking whether there is a “boy crisis” in education and wondering what can be done to address it. In fact, a growing “boy gap” in education can be seen across OECD countries, with the problem beginning long before students reach university or college age. According to a recent report, “boys, as a group, rank behind girls by nearly every measure of scholastic achievement”—including reading and writing scores—and they are “also more likely to be picked out for behavioural problems, more likely to repeat a grade and to drop out of school altogether.”2
The gender gap in tertiary education is calculated by first constructing a gender index (column C in the table) that divides the ratio of men to women who have completed tertiary education (column A) by the ratio of men to women in the population (column B). If the two ratios are the same, the gender index will be equal to one. If the ratio of men to women who have completed tertiary education is greater than the ratio of men to women in the population, the index is greater than one. The index is less than one if the ratio of men to women who have completed tertiary education is less than the ratio of men to women in the population.
For every province, and for Canada as a whole, the calculated index is less than one. This means that the ratio of men to women who have completed tertiary education is less than the ratio of men to women in the overall population. In other words, women make up a bigger share of the population with a tertiary education than their share in the population would have suggested.
Take Saskatchewan as an example. The ratio of men to women with a tertiary education in Saskatchewan is 0.60. This means that for every 100 women in Saskatchewan who have completed a tertiary degree, there are only 60 men who have. Yet men outnumber women in Saskatchewan—for every 100 women, there are 101 men. Dividing the first ratio (0.60) by the second (1.01) results in an index value of 0.59. What this means is that men are underperforming in attaining a tertiary graduation compared to their relative share of the population. The further away the index value is from the value of 1, the more gender imbalance the province has in tertiary education. The table reveals that Saskatchewan has the most gender imbalance while Ontario has the least.
The gender gap is then calculated by subtracting the index value from 1 and taking the absolute value of that difference. The resulting “gender gap” is shown in column E. In effect, provinces or countries with a gender gap closer to zero are more gender balanced on tertiary education.
In Canada and the provinces, the gender gap is in favour of women. This is also the case for most peer countries. The exceptions are Austria, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In those five countries, the share of men to women in tertiary education is higher than the share of men to women in the population. This means that the index value calculated in column C in the table below is greater than 1 and that subtracting the index value from one results in a negative number in column D. This means that the gender imbalance is in favour of men in these countries. Because we do not want to distinguish between imbalances in favour of men or women, the absolute value of column D is calculated. The resulting gender gap is shown in column E.
The best result on this indicator is to have a gender index of 1, which means that the gender gap is zero. A higher number means a larger gender gap.
When calculating the gender gap, data on the number of tertiary graduates is obtained from the OECD. The OECD uses the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), which excludes trade and vocational programs. The likely impact of excluding these programs is to increase the gender gap in favour or women. However, internationally comparable data are not currently available to test that hypothesis.
A gender gap in tertiary education indicates that problems exist in a country’s elementary and secondary education system. Every peer country has a gender imbalance in higher education of some magnitude, though some are closer to an equal distribution than others. Four Canadian provinces earn respectable “B” grades and five provinces earn “C” grades. Only one province gets a “D–” grade—Saskatchewan—with a gender gap larger than that of the worse-performing comparator country.
In addition to ranking the provinces against Canada’s international peers, the provinces have been compared with each other and placed into three categories: “above average,” “average,” and “below average.”3
Ontario has the smallest gender gap and is considered above average. With the exception of Nova Scotia, the Western provinces perform the worst on this measure. The increased availability of high-paying jobs with low academic requirements in the resource sector may tempt many men in particular to discontinue their education in favour of employment.
Examining the gender gap in tertiary education for everyone aged 25 to 64 provides an important picture of a province’s overall long-term performance. But it is just as important to know how a younger age group—those aged 25 to 34—is faring, given that the experiences of this group provides a better sense of how the system has performed in more recent years.
Education levels have increased for both men and women in this younger age cohort; however, in every province, the number of women with tertiary education has increased more quickly than the number for men. Consequently, the gender gap has increased for every province.
In the younger age group, Ontario still has the smallest gap while Alberta and Saskatchewan are still at the back of the pack.
Which gender is on the disadvantaged side of the equation differs by country. In 5 of the 16 peer countries, men aged 25 to 64 are more likely than women in that age cohort to have tertiary education. This includes high-ranking Japan and the Netherlands, where the balance tips slightly in favour of men, but also poor performers Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, where men are significantly more likely than women to have tertiary education. The remaining 11 countries, including Canada, have gender imbalances that favour women.
All 10 provinces have gender imbalances that favour women. The largest imbalance is in Saskatchewan, where for every 100 Canadian women aged 25 to 64 with a tertiary education, only 60 men have one. The smallest imbalance is in Ontario, where 87 men have a tertiary education for every 100 women.
It is important to keep in mind that college and university are only two of many possible educational avenues. Indeed, men’s lower rate of tertiary education may be due in part to their pursuing apprenticeships and other vocational paths to lucrative careers. Moreover, although more women than men graduate overall from Canadian tertiary institutions, men still dominate many of the fields with superior employment and income prospects for graduates. For example, while women are more likely than men to be enrolled in the humanities, social and behavioural sciences, and education, men are much more likely than women to be enrolled in engineering, mathematics, and computer and information sciences.4
When we examine the provincial gender gaps by education type, some distinct patterns emerge. In every province, men are much more likely to have an apprenticeship. In Alberta, there are 285 men aged 25–64 with an apprenticeship for every 100 women. The smallest discrepancy is in Quebec, where there are 149 men to every 100 women. At the PhD level, men are outperforming women. In P.E.I. there are 242 men with PhDs for every 100 women; the lowest ratio is in Quebec, with 156 men with PhDs to every 100 women.
In short, although there is reason to be concerned about the gender gap in Canadian higher education, debate and decision-making should take into account the many variations in participation and outcomes by program and institution, and how these align with employment and income.
If the provinces want to improve their gender balance in higher education, they will have to take steps to improve the performance of boys in elementary and secondary school and increase the rates at which they apply to, enrol in, and complete tertiary education. At the same time, the provinces need to continue to make efforts to repair gender imbalances in specific fields and programs. Action in both areas will be essential to achieving a more equitable distribution of educational opportunities and achievements, which can contribute to economic prosperity and social well-being.
1 Martin Turcotte, Women and Education, Catalogue no. 89-503-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2011), 19.
2 Paul Cappon, Exploring the “Boy Crisis” in Education (Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning, 2011), 1.
3 To compare the performance of Canadian provinces relative to one another, we first determined the average score and standard deviation of the provincial values. The standard deviation is a measure of how much variability there is in a set of numbers. If the numbers are normally distributed (i.e., the distribution is not heavily weighted to one side or another and/or does not have significant outliers), about 68 per cent will fall within one standard deviation above or below the average. Any province scoring one standard deviation above the average is “above average.” Provinces scoring less than the average minus one standard deviation are “below average.” The remaining provinces are “average” performers.
4 Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, “Studying the Difference Between Men and Women: Male vs. Female Enrolment in Canadian Colleges and Universities by Field of Study.” Based on data from Statistics Canada, Public Post-Secondary Enrolments by Institution Type, Sex, and Field of Study (CANSIM 477-0019).
The absolute value of 1 minus the ratio of men to women with tertiary education to the ratio of men to women in the overall population. Tertiary education includes college and university education; it does not include trade and vocational programs. Tertiary education is a subset of post-secondary education, which includes all trade, vocational, college, and university programs.
The data on this page are current as of June 2014.