Pay attention to the vocational education gap

What university attrition rates tell us about gender inequality in vocational training

Brody Hannan, Francesca Maclean

Trade and industry, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia

7 March 2019

Women who receive higher education are by no means better off than men who opt for vocational education, Brody Hannan and Francesca Maclean write.

It’s been long-established that there are more women enrolled in Australian universities than men. In a recent Department of Education survey, another statistic was added to the list: men are 5 per cent more likely to drop out of their undergraduate studies than women.

When the Grattan Institute echoed similar sentiments in its Dropping Out: The Benefits and Costs of Trying University report published in April 2018, even more people started taking interest in the matter.

With evidence to prove that university graduates have higher average salaries than non-graduates, why don’t more men stay in university?

The Grattan report suggested a possible explanation: men who receive vocational training are much more likely to benefit financially than women with the same qualifications.

In a 2017 ABS survey, upper-level vocation qualifications – for example, Certificate (Cert) IV and Diplomas – reaped more financial gains for men than they did for women.

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Whilst the median annual income for women with a Bachelor’s degree, aged 25-34 years, is marginally higher than that of men of the same age who have only completed Year 12, it is lower than men who have completed Diplomas, or even Cert IIIs and IVs.

What’s more, women who complete a Cert III or IV earn a lower median income than their male counterparts who have only finished Year 12.

Despite having higher levels of education, women, in many instances, are paid less.

For men, there is less financial risk in leaving university because they have these less orthodox but higher-paying career opportunities. It doesn’t matter which sector or pathway men pursue; they will receive higher wages than what they would have had they not pursued any further education at all.

On the other hand, women have more financial incentive to stay in university to receive their formal education. For them, university is also the most likely path to decreasing the wage gap and moving towards a high-paying job.

At this point, it is no longer an issue of improving male higher education participation rates, but rather, an issue of addressing the gender-pay gap and gender inequity amongst those with vocational training.

But why does this disparity even exist in the first place?

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There are many drivers: a lack of advancement opportunities for women; exclusive or even toxic masculine cultures without a critical mass of women or other minoritised groups; a lack of role models, mentors, and sponsors; bias against women negotiating pay; inadequate parental leave arrangements for all carers (women and their partners); as well as unconscious bias in hiring and promotion decisions.

This is a complex problem that has many drivers and the interplay between these issues should not be ignored. These issues do not exist in isolation in any sector or workplace – but are intertwined within Australian culture and families, including in how we socialise our young women and men as carers or risk-takers dependent on their gender.

Then there’s the separate problem that women aren’t as actively encouraged as men in earlier years to take the risk to explore less common options in their formal education.

Historically, schools and universities have been designed to reward girls for being well-behaved and striving towards better individual ability. Considering the correlation between encouraging risk-taking and boosting confidence amongst girls, there might be more merit than expected in emphasising vocational training in their younger years at school.

Pairing such initiatives with a concerted effort to reduce the wage gap across vocational employment sectors, we may one day see more women willing to pursue a path other than university in the long-term.

A closer look into high male attrition rates reveal a couple of things. Firstly, it’s the career opportunities that are available to men that put less pressure on them to pursue higher education.

But more importantly, it reveals that men receive greater financial benefit than women from receiving any kind of formal education – even at the Cert IV or Diploma level. Ultimately, we are reminded that there is still more work to be done in providing equal opportunities between women and men.

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