Gender balance in the student body

- October 28, 2010

Dal grads Jacqueline Richardson and Corey Knickle.

Before we begin this story about disengaged boys and their waning interest in university, let me introduce you to Corey Knickle.

Mr. Knickle, 23, is entering his second year of Dalhousie medical school. He swam five seasons with the varsity Tigers, co-captain in his final year. His best event was 200-metre butterfly, and some mornings, while most people were still enjoying their final moments of cherished sleep, he was logging 5.5 kilometres in the Dalplex pool. 

“I had been swimming since I was nine so I was used to juggling a lot,” explains Mr. Knickle, who grew up in Cole Harbour. “I think it taught me how to get things done efficiently and how to deal with a high-stress situation such as exams.”

What, you might ask, could possibly be the problem with boys and higher education?

Let’s take a look at Mr. Knickle’s medical school class, a group of academic overachievers, who had, upon admission, a grade point average of 3.8. Nineteen per cent of the 104 future doctors had already earned a graduate degree, such as a PhD or a MSc. Their average age was 24.

And 66 of these future doctors were female, making the class of 2013, it could be argued, the embodiment of what Statistics Canada describes as a “long-term trend” in higher education. Females are outnumbering males in most university programs, and graduating in increasingly higher numbers, mirroring a gender gap that has led to educational reforms in some other countries.

In 2008, 60% of the 244,380 students receiving a degree, diploma, or certificate from a Canadian university were female, according to the federal agency, whose numbers show a pattern that includes Nova Scotia institutions.

What is happening? And should anyone care?

Experts are divided. On one side of the debate are the people who point out that women, regardless of their education, still earn, on average, less than men in the workforce. On the other side are professionals who believe that the shift is the sign of a deeper malaise, a school system that is failing our boys and a society that has left them dangerously disengaged, creating a wave of underachievers hooked on Call of Duty and Halo.

American psychologist Leonard Sax, author of the book Boys Adrift, paints perhaps the most disturbing picture. Dr. Sax has traveled to Nova Scotia to lead workshops for public school teachers, and one those workshops took place in Cole Harbour where Corey Knickle graduated with the Governor General’s Bronze Medal for highest academic average at Auburn High.

“Dr. Sax spoke for the entire morning,” says one teacher. “He really changed my way of thinking when working with four and five-year-old boys.”

In Boys Adrift, Dr. Sax outlines a disquieting pattern. Boys, he says, are not flourishing in school for a myriad of reasons. Many of the young men who do enrol in university drop out after a year or two, drift into low-paying jobs, and eventually move back in with their parents. What Dr. Sax, in his practice as a psychologist, finds most upsetting is the lack of passion he sees in boys who have abandoned “the American dream.”

Dr. Sax would probably be relieved to meet Mr. Knickle, who, early on, made a connection between his education and his future.

“For boys, it’s cool to act up in class,” says the Dalhousie swimmer. “It’s funny if you flunk a test. I never let this peer pressure get to me because of my parents.”

While the 66 females in the Class of 2013 can be expected to earn better than average incomes, female university graduates in the Maritimes are still earning less than men. An article posted on the Maritime Province Higher Education Commission website says that some of that gap – but not all – can be attributed to the field of study or occupations chosen by women.

“The underrepresentation of women in engineering and applied sciences and mathematics and physical sciences, for example, led to their under-representation in some of the highest earning occupations such as computer programmer/analyst and engineer,” the article states.

That is where Dr. Michael Shepherd, dean of Dalhousie’s Computer Science Faculty comes in. Dr. Shepherd is making a concerted effort to recruit females, who are, he says, wanted by the industry and whose presence gives the classroom a more balanced environment.

Dr. Shepherd’s department has 250 undergraduate students and only 25 to 30 are female. Dr. Shepherd has a one-word answer when asked why computer science is attracting males at a time when social scientists are mulling over disengaged boys.

“Jobs,” he says without hesitation. “Our students all get jobs.”

Not only do they get jobs, but they get well-paying jobs quickly, and those jobs allow them to remain in Nova Scotia if they choose, says Dr. Shepherd, who has the figures to back this up. Statistics Canada shows that women make up three quarters of the graduates in education and a major share of the humanties grads.

Dr. Shepherd does not believe that females are limited in their choices by aptitude, noting the numbers of women in pharmacy. 

“If you can do organic chemistry,” he says, “you can do computer science.”

Experts have compiled a list of factors they believe are causing boys to struggle with grade school.  At the top are tightly regulated schools and a propensity by teachers to mistake boys’ exuberance for rebellion or attention deficit. Video games, a lack of male teachers, and even environmental factors that cause girls to mature earlier than boys are also mentioned.

Dr. Lynn Taylor, director of Dalhousie’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, says that many boys are already “out of the pool” for university by their teens. In 2006, she said, only 77 per cent of males in Canada graduated from high school compared to 84 per cent of girls.

Dr. Taylor says non-cognitive skills – such as time management, the ability to pay attention, and the willingness to ask for assistance, tend to be weaker in boys than girls. Dr. Taylor says faculty members at Dalhousie work at incorporating skill building into their courses and they are offering diverse learning opportunities to engage more students.

Resources are available to help students with everything from academic skill building to developing a good strategy for test taking, she says. People who do not meet with early success tend to detach their self-esteem from education so it is important that educators increase the value that students place on academics, ?she says. 

Dr. Taylor says that it is imperative that students not be excluded from post-secondary education because 66 per cent of the new jobs in Canada require either a college or university education.

“My parents always taught me that school was extremely important because it can open up future opportunities,” says Mr. Knickle.


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