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Women in STEM ‘sole focus’ of gender imbalance debate

More men must be encouraged into female-dominated areas such as nursing and teaching, says Ucas chief

Male nurse at work

Source: Alamy

Men should be encouraged into female-dominated subjects such as nursing, teaching and social work, just as science and engineering is promoted to women, the head of Ucas has argued.

Mary Curnock Cook pointed out that although women were outnumbered in subjects such as computer science, the gender discrepancy was actually greater in nursing, for example.

“We hear all these things about [getting] more women into science, and women doing physics, and computers and so on,” she told the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators in Manchester on 15 April.

But she asked: “Why don’t we hear more about getting men into nursing and education and social work where, after all, there’s a very ready supply of a very large volume of jobs?”

In all types of engineering, it would take just over 15,000 extra female students to balance out the current male dominance of the subject, she said. But in subjects allied to medicine, which includes nursing, the number of extra men needed was close to 30,000, she said.

Yet action over gender imbalances at university was “about women who are disadvantaged compared with men”, she said. “Why wouldn’t you set out to make it more socially acceptable for young men to go into nursing and teaching?” she asked.

'Male nurses outnumbered' graph (24 April 2014)

Click image to enlarge

“Maybe some of the issues we’ve got with male education would be improved by having more male primary and secondary teachers,” Ms Curnock Cook said. She added that boys being taught English literature in classes with a majority of girls and by female teachers “doesn’t always make for young men who love English literature”. “I don’t see anything happening in education policy to tackle this issue,” she said.

She made the broader point that there was a now a “huge sociological and widening participation issue” because women were so much more likely to apply to higher education than men.

Women are a third more likely to apply to university and are actually as likely to enter higher education as men are to apply for it, she explained.

Not only was this a social issue but it was also a recruitment and demand problem for universities, she said. If boys applied to universities at the same rate as girls, there would be a “huge boost” in demand for higher education.

The deficit of female students studying some science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects has led to a number of initiatives, including WISE, which looks to boost the number of women working in STEM fields by creating a “pipeline” through school and university to the workplace.

The under-representation of women in scientific careers was the subject of a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee earlier this year.

The Athena SWAN awards have also encouraged better support for women pursuing careers in science, and it has been suggested that research councils could link such awards to funding.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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Readers' comments (6)

  • Ever stop to wonder why 'gender imbalance' has become the descriptor for what is, in effect, systematic, institutional sexism that makes itself manifest in the atrophying of women's long term careers viz-a-viz men's? Simple: gender imbalance directs the argument to a non-controversial (non-feminist) place in which 'the problem' is just a matter of representative numbers. More men in nursing. More women in STEM. No need to change things *too* much or to question too deeply what institutional practices and assumptions and workplace cultures do to sustain 'gender imbalance'. Sigh. What I struggle with is why this is not OBVIOUS to everyone else?

    Yours
    A Jaded Feminist Sociologist

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  • Curt Rice

    Important article (and Jo Phoenix' comment is important and fundamental!). In Norway, we debate this, too. The Norwegian Committee on Gender Balance in Research has recommended steps along these lines. That was done before I took over as head of this committee, but I did describe and discuss their recommendations on my blog, at: A sex point or two for male nurses: http://curt-rice.com/2012/05/14/a-sex-point-or-two-for-male-nurses/

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  • As a male working in a Uni STEM environment, and a former school governor of a mixed school where ALL the Science teachers were female I'm aware that headline grabbing gender balance/bias is often wide of the mark. However having seen a very competent trainee male nurse publicly rubbished by two of his female lecturers who have a very strong anti male in 'their' profession bias, things do need to be addressed across the board.

    Too many times as a Trades Union rep I've dealt with issues of bias, not just gender, and been accused of being 'ist' when pointing out to my employers representatives that tokenism doesn't work, and that what they call 'positive discrimination' is actually negative discrimination, often affecting a much larger cross-section of people.

    Equality for ALL, in everything, needs a lot of effort and upsets those whose ideological beliefs sets them apart from others, all too frequently resulting in them playing the 'victim' card to stop any further discussion, let alone action. Is it any wonder the newly commercialised University sector so desperate for money has become totally hamstrung having become too reliant on overseas students? And yes I've seen the 'victim' card played by a male head of school, so HE could continue his misogynist tyranny, supported by a female (in)Human Resources manager!

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  • Jo Phoenix says [there is] systematic, institutional sexism that makes itself manifest in the atrophying of women's long term careers viz-a-viz men's?

    Is there any actual evidence for this? As far as I know if you compare never-married and childless women to men, they have pretty much similar career paths.

    Surveys show a great many women, in particular those in relationships and with children, chose to leave the workforce of their own volition, especially when their partners earnings are sufficient for the household's standard of living not to be negatively affected. This effects the overall numbers of women in senior experienced roles. I don't see how this is reflective of 'institutional sexism' at all.

    The real source of Jo Phoenix's 'tiredness', I would have thought, is the strain of trying to apply radical feminist ideology to a sexually dimorphic species, which results in most road labourers being men, and most beauty technicians being women!

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  • Curious that any mention of structural disadvantage (so eloquently described by Peter Murphy, albeit badged as 'individual choice') gets automatically labelled 'radical feminist ideology'. Even more curious that 'radical feminist ideology' is seen to be a criticism. Apart from this rather weak form of critique, my original point was that the manner in which the debate has been framed, as 'gender imbalance' means that the solutions will only ever focus on the issue of numbers. In so doing, what is missed is a discussion of other aspects of disadvantage - or indeed whether 'equality' in this instance is 'just' a question of numbers.

    My tiredness is the result of a lack of sociological depth to the debate that we are having about how organisations operate and a lack of political understanding in the discussions that we are having about what sort of organisations we want to become. Precisely what does gender equity mean in a University? Equal numbers? Seems a tad superficial as an answer.

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  • A crucial point is being made here. Too long have we put up with one sided and quite frankly unacceptable sexist bias with a lot of government schemes that have only focused on one side of an unbalance more often than not the focus has been on women who naturally play the victim card instead of standing up and asking the intelligent question "but what about others areas is this happening"

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