Graduation gap between women and men continues to widen

Around 43,000 more women than men graduated from university degrees last year, according to the Department of Education and Training’s most recent figures.

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In 1999, the graduation rate gender gap was 21,000 – around half of what it was last year.

But while the rise in women graduating has outpaced men for more several decades across the broad, women remain underrepresented in high-earning faculties such as IT and engineering, according to government reports.

This has resulted in a substantial imbalance in the number of women finding work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries, considered areas of future labour market growth.

Neha Soni migrated from India to Australia in 2013 to pursue a Masters of Information Systems at Melbourne University and has firsthand experience of the issue.

“As far as my course was concerned, the male-to-female ratio was around 60 per cent to 40 per cent,” she said.

“I think that was a good balance there, but in the workplace I don’t see a similar ratio. It’s more of a 75 per cent to 25 per cent.”

After graduating last year, Ms Soni was employed by Deloitte as a business analyst.

She said she has not faced any barriers at her current job because of her gender, but has in the past.

“I worked for around two or three months in a tier-two company while I was studying, where I did face some discrimination,” she said.

“That was a sad experience really. I was part of a project team where I was the only female employee and we had six other males, so it was a team of seven.

“For example, with Friday drinks… I wasn’t really invited.”

Ms Soni said she knows the issue is systemic and not unique to Australia, and has noticed an effort by Australian universities to encourage women to enrol in degrees historically dominated by men.

“Back home, women are not encouraged to participate in STEM subjects – so subjects that includes science, technology, engineering, mathematics,” she said.

“There are no campaigns, no initiatives. Whereas, here, I’ve seen a whole bunch of programs, especially at the University of Melbourne, that encourage females to participate in these courses and even the subjects.

“That is the difference I see, and I feel that really helps. But as far as the workforce is concerned, that is entirely dependent on the individual organisation and its culture and has little to do with the country.”

Alan Montague, an education policy expert from RMIT University, said the overall figures tend to obscure the opportunities available to women in the workforce and that to see the full picture you need to take a closer look at the data.

Dr Montague said employees in certain trade industries which tend to be dominated by men do not always need to complete tertiary studies to continue full-time work.

He believes women need to be provided more pathways to careers in those industries.

“Labour and construction jobs – there are few women working in those types of areas,” he said. “This is where people get diverted, particularly males who may have the capabilities to go further and get qualifications. But women are seeing the tertiary pathway, the university pathway, as the more appropriate pathway to get a foothold in the labour market.”

For some, it comes down to full-time work offering better opportunities than further studies.

Mackenzie Randall,21, applied for university once he finished high school, but opted out of his course after finding regular work.

Mr Randall now works as a furniture removalist for Man With A Van and takes on theatre technician and music jobs on the side.

He said the decision to pursue full-time work instead of study was the right one in retrospect and he feels no pressure to get a university or vocational qualification.

“I look at my friends who are at uni and still living at home, and I think, ‘I’d much rather have the lifestyle I have,’ which is living in the city and working and getting by,” he said.