Leading article: Unequal opportunities

Related Topics

If Caroline Flint MP is to be believed – and there is at least a grain of truth in what she says about the decorative position still occupied by women in politics, as in many other walks of life – women still face difficulties in making their voices heard at the top national tables on an equal footing with men. As far as participation in higher education goes, however, female inequality has become a thing of the past. How thoroughly the gender balance of this key sector has shifted is shown in a report just published by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Its findings show that women are now ahead of men on every recognised indicator. It is not just that the proportion of young women going on to higher education now exceeds the proportion of men, but that the gap is substantial – 49 per cent of women compared with 38 per cent of men – and widening. Nor are women any longer concentrated in the less-prestigious institutions or studying so-called lower-status subjects. There are more women than men studying medicine and law, and achieving better grades. One result, as was reported last week, is that the medical profession is becoming "feminised"; the same applies to some branches of the law.

Among higher education establishments, the only exceptions are the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. But even there women have drawn level, from a comparatively low start. A female majority graduating from Oxbridge can only be a matter of time.

In very many respects, this is a success story. It is striking that, with 49 per cent of their number going on to higher education, girls have almost reached the Government's 50 per cent target. If boys were doing as well as girls, this target would be more realistic than it often seems.

That more young women are now gaining the qualifications to enter the professions and take higher-paying jobs may well reflect the emphasis placed on girls' performance. In education, at least, girls can no longer be seen as disadvantaged. That is enormous, and cheering, progress. It also fosters hope that the gender imbalance in the nation's top jobs will, in time, be rectified.

The question at the heart of these findings, however, is whether girls' success might not have been "bought" at boys' expense. Have modifications to the curriculum, including the greater weight now given to coursework as opposed to formal exams, perhaps played to the strengths of girls and so penalised boys? Do good results at school nurture greater confidence in girls that then enhances their performance further down the line? Are boys now the disadvantaged sex?

There may indeed be lessons to be learned from the successful efforts made to raise attainment among girls, in such areas as capturing interest and encouraging diligence. The decline in traditional male employment might also be a factor, with boys having to adjust to a world that needs different skills. In the short term, the achievement gap that has opened up could help redress the historical under-representation of women at senior levels. In the longer term, though, it is clearly undesirable if half the country's young people – whichever half – are failing to reach their potential. Researchers and policy-makers have a duty to establish not just what is happening, but why, and to suggest ways in which adverse trends can be remedied.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Database Administrator

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: The role could involve w...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified secondary s...

Deputy Head of Science

£22000 - £36000 per annum + MPR / UPR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our cli...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

My limerick response to Mike Read’s Ukip Calypso

Simon Kelner
The number of ring ouzels have seen a 30 per cent decline in the last 10 years  

How the sight of flocks of ring ouzels helps to turn autumn into the new spring

Michael McCarthy
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London