Female University Enrolment Exceeds Male | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Female University Enrolment Exceeds Male

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 26, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

Female University Enrolment Exceeds Male

It's just past 10 p.m. on Saturday at the Turret - Wilfrid Laurier's campus nightclub. A no-name band is onstage rocking into their set, and female students are posing in tight designer jeans and tiny skirts while most of the guys, who have taken up positions around the perimeter of the dance floor, stand, drink and stare. Amid all the bare skin at this year-end bash (and there's plenty of it), one set of especially hairy legs, belonging to a scruffy-looking senior, stands out. Wearing a multicoloured bathrobe over a pair of Hawaiian board shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, he looks like he's auditioning for a remake of Animal House. And he's brought his posse: two guys in fluorescent Reebok track suits and matching headbands, who egg him on as he tries to get the attention of every woman in the bar.

This poor man's Hugh Hefner has already creeped out one female partier, by sneaking up behind her and kissing the back of her neck, when a group of seven tank-topped blondes stop to watch - and mock - his drunken version of the white-man shuffle. (His dance partner: a plastic cup brimming with liquid courage.) He peers at them from above a pair of aviator shades and then, with a cocky smile, motions for them to join him. Instantly, one of the women, rolling her eyes, mouths "I don't think so," and in unison, the group bolts to the bar. Even at a school where men are at a premium, women, apparently, have limits.

Laurier, like nearly every UNIVERSITY in Canada, is now predominantly female. (Sixty-one per cent of the Waterloo, Ont.-based school's 11,000 students are women.) The national average is nearly three women to every two men on campus - making for a totally different experience from what the university-educated parents of today's undergrads went through. When the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was released in 1970, identifying inequalities in the education system, women made up just 38.6 per cent of all undergrads. By 1981, women had tipped the scale and become the majority, and the gap has been widening ever since. Females accounted for about three quarters of the growth in enrolment during the '80s and '90s. (A nearly identical shift has taken place in the United States.)

Today, 59 per cent of Canadian undergrads are women. Almost every faculty and school has undergone a sex change - including the social sciences (68 per cent female) and English (83 per cent female). Professional programs are moving in the same direction. Med school grads? 59 per cent women. Law school? 53 per cent. Newly chartered accountants? 51 per cent.

Only engineering, computer science and the physical sciences remain strongholds for men at the undergraduate level. And just three male bastions in higher education are left: the University of Waterloo (54 per cent male), the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (58 per cent male) and - big surprise - Kingston's Royal Military College (78 per cent male).

Sean McNamara, a third-year communications major at WLU, cracks a toothy grin when asked if he's noticed the gender split on campus. "It comes and goes with the weather," says McNamara, 22. "As soon as it gets warm outside, I swear, the population of girls on campus at least triples." On the flip side, Melissa St. Amant says the gap has become frustratingly evident - especially since she and her boyfriend broke up last year. "Now that I'm back on the dating scene, it's hard not to notice the lack of options," says St. Amant, a biology major at Laurier. "It's slim pickings out there."

Hooking up is one thing, but inside the classroom, most of the students Maclean's spoke to don't think about it or even notice. Some experts, however, claim that the split can have an enormous impact on learning. "When a man and woman are looking at the same landscape they are seeing very different things," says Leonard Sax, a clinical psychologist and author of Why Gender Matters. "In a 60 to 40 per cent split, teachers will slant their teaching to the style of the majority in the classroom. The rest will be disengaged. They'll get bored. So everybody loses. The 60 to 40 split may harm women socially, but it also harms men because the teaching in the classroom will inevitably be tilted towards the girls. Teachers ask questions in English class, like 'How would you feel if you were this character?' which always alienates the great majority of boys. A better question for boys is, 'What would you do if you were in that situation?' "

It seems that all of the money spent in the last couple of decades on research and programs to help high school girls perform better in math and science has paid off. Concern and funding is now shifting to boys - who are scoring lower on standardized tests and dropping out of high school at a much higher rate than girls. It's unlikely anyone will be calling for a royal commission, but a look at the numbers would suggest that it's boys who will be getting the majority of the attention.

Terry Crowley, the chair of the history department at the University of Guelph (which is 63 per cent female), says he's found the gender split to be the most detrimental for men in the first two years of undergrad - by third year, he says, the guys have caught up. "The gender revolution is the great revolution of the 20th century," says Crowley, who has been teaching at Guelph for 35 years. "I used to pay special attention to quiet young women and had to restrain the men - telling them they can't control the show. Now I have to work hard to bring along shy young men. Boys are at a less advanced developmental stage and they really have trouble establishing their presence. Women are socialized better and develop intellectually much faster. It's placed men in a difficult situation."

In 2003, the 60/40, female/male split among McGill undergrads sparked debate within the university's senate. A 10-page report was written assessing the school's gender composition, faculty breakdowns as well as historical and national trend data. "We wondered whether or not there were possible biases regarding gender in our admissions and if there were any active steps we should take," says Morton Mendelson, McGill's associate provost, who helped write the report that concluded the gender issue should be addressed at the faculty level. "In the end, we affirmed the commitment to an admissions policy that is based on academic merit - there was not a proposal that there be affirmative action." The point of the exercise, says Mendelson, was to address the issue now, in case enrolment trends continue, and the female/male split becomes a problem later.

Even though the gender shift has turned post-secondary education into more of a woman's world than ever, some aspects of the university experience itself have changed little from its all-boy's club past. A few years ago, when heading west in September from Toronto to Windsor along Highway 401, a stretch of pavement linking half a dozen universities, it was common to pass giant hand-painted signs hanging from highway overpasses greeting nervous frosh and their parents. The most memorable - written in giant block lettering - read: "THANK YOU FATHERS FOR YOUR VIRGIN DAUGHTERS."

Very much in that tradition, a fourth-year biology student at Laurier wrote a piece in the Cord Weekly, his school's newspaper, last fall titled "A Gentleman's Guide to Getting Laid at WLU." In the piece, the writer described Laurier women as "promiscuous by nature" and offered tips on how to get them into bed. Apparently, a trusted "wingman" and a closet full of brightly coloured Lacoste golf shirts is a good start. "The Wilfrid Laurier Law of Numbers states that if you hump enough girls at Fubar," he wrote, referring to dance-floor activities at a local nightclub, "one will always take you home."

While most students shrugged off the column as a joke, some were enraged. A coalition was formed with the stated aim of ensuring the writer's celibacy, and posters featuring his headshot were plastered around campus, dubbing him "Laurier's Least Wanted" and issuing a memo to Laurier women: "Do not sleep with this man at any cost!"

The columnist didn't return our calls (no doubt hoping this moment of youthful indiscretion would just go away), but Brandon Currie, last year's editor-in-chief of the Cord, says that part of his reasoning for running the story was to illustrate what he considers a fairly pervasive attitude on university campuses. "It was definitely offensive, but this is how a lot of guys talk at Laurier - and it's not just Waterloo," says Currie, a global studies and history major. "It's not a majority, of course, but it's definitely a minority."

On the second floor of Laurier's campus centre, most of the students are wearing flip-flops and hooded sweatshirts - comfort clothes for hitting the books. A couple of girls meet to study, and one, with a thick biology textbook tucked under her arm, takes a lighthearted swipe at her friend. "So you wore your pyjamas today." The other girl, looking around at the chairs and couches, filled with mostly women, laughs: "Do you see anyone for me to impress?"

That attitude - and certainly the clothing - changes dramatically after dark. At the Turret and at Wilf's, the campus pub located two floors below in the student centre, many in the crowd seem intent on turning heads. Little is left to the imagination. Sexually charged girl-and-girl dancing is the norm. And on a few occasions, women pose for photos kissing one another in an attempt to taunt, or at least grab the attention of the guys. Some women spend as much time watching the guys watching them as they do watching the band onstage.

The campus meat market, says Sax, boils down to Economics 101. "It's supply and demand," he says. "Whenever there is a gender imbalance, the gender in excess will work harder. At a great majority of colleges in North America, where you have something close to a 60/40 ratio of women to men, the women are well-groomed and the men are slovenly, unkept, unshaven and don't smell very good. When there are three women for every two men, the men don't have to try as hard - at least socially. Women may resort to strategies that 20 years ago they would not have resorted to - some women may take the Girls Gone Wild approach."

Case in point: McGill University. In February, Le Journal de Montréal published lewd photos taken during a campus party that was organized by the Montreal school's management students. Students were pictured in varying degrees of undress. Others wore "puke suits." Students competed for points by stripping or drinking to the point of vomiting.

Long before that public relations nightmare, McGill earned the dubious distinction last fall of being the only Canadian school on Playboy's Top 10 list of North American party schools. The magazine's highly unscientific criteria: proximity to off-campus entertainment, general vibrancy, social opportunities and male-to-female ratio.

Back at the Turret, the split isn't so obvious. Especially when students crowd the empty stage and start chanting "Sammy," in anticipation of Sam Roberts, the night's headliner. But before the Montreal rocker and his band take the stage, the DJ spins one last warm-up track - an old John Mellencamp favourite, Jack & Diane (released in 1982, before nearly everyone in the club was born). Instantly, the dance floor fills. And there, tearing things up in the middle, is the bar's only bathrobed patron. This time, however, he has friends. All smiles and feeling no pain, he's sandwiched between two pretty blondes in low-cut tops. By last call, he'll be seen whispering into the ears and grinding with no less than 12 women - all of whom appear perfectly fine with his advances. These days, even a lug like him can be the big man on campus.

Maclean's June 26, 2006