Post Secondary Reform and Women

Wednesday, July 28 2010

By Ginette Petitpas-Taylor

The Commission that recently reviewed New Brunswick's post-secondary system recommended, among many things, that universities and colleges have performance contracts to ensure they make special efforts to increase the number of under-represented groups, for example, the number of women or men in programs with significant gender imbalances. That is the only mention of gender by the two commissioners, Rick Miner and Jacques L'Ecuyer.

Of course, a group does not have to be mentioned for it to be affected, even in a positive way. In fact, women will likely be the major beneficiaries of the Commission's proposed maximum annual limit of $7,000 to student loans and other measures to help low-income students and graduates, although the proposed changes are less than what is needed to help part-time students and those whose parents or partner's income is just above what is considered "low"

Women, who generally have less income and mobility than men, could also be major beneficiaries of the recommended streamlining and integration of our post secondary education system - for example, if licensed practical nurses could get some credit for their community college training and work experience if they eventually register for a university nursing degree. And any offer of distance education or of a one-stop information portal, other recommendations of the Commission, is certain to be highly attractive to women around the province.

However, lack of mention of a group is usually a sign of lack of awareness and of commitment to addressing any concerns of that group. The Commission's earlier discussion paper barely mentioned gender and diversity concerns and only one of its more than 30 online graphs differentiated between women and men. Without data, there is no way to systematically include gender in analysis, no way for analysis to reveal possible outcomes for women and for men and no way to adjust in order for these groups to benefit equally from initiatives.

The briefs submitted to the Commission mostly ignored gender or equality issues, including most briefs from faculty associations, educational institutions and student groups.

Some concern has recently been expressed that the recommended merger of some university campuses into polytechnics would have a disproportionate and negative impact on women, because women favour university studies over technical colleges, and the move to polytechnics would reduce some women's access to a university campus, such as in Saint John and northern New Brunswick.

Most women, like most men, in the province, do not live near a campus, especially not one offering the course in which they may be interested. While for some of us, what made it possible to complete our education was the fact that we happened to live near a post secondary educational institution, some people who live in a municipality with a university cannot attend because they don't have the money, child care or other support.

Access to education is mostly about adequate student financial assistance, access to information about programs and resources, access to affordable and flexible child care and to bridging and other programs, especially when entering non-traditional fields.

Too little is known about how the polytechnics will be created, what programs will be offered and if the performance contracts will perform, to evaluate whether New Brunswick women would find their place in the proposed structure. However, what is known is that without consideration for the needs of women and gender disparities in post secondary education - without gender-based analysis - any change will potentially have a discriminatory impact and opportunities to correct inequality will be wasted.

In implementing any changes to the post secondary education system, whether based on the Commission's recommendations or not, whether the polytechnics or not, the government must ensure the questions such as the following are paramount in the mandate of the architects of change:

Women are not on an equal footing with men in the post-secondary system. Systemic barriers within educational institutions and in the larger society continue to shape the education and training patterns. Women are more likely than men to study part-time and are chronically under-represented in certain trades, science and technology programs that offer better employment prospects.

Women have favoured university education over community or technical colleges partly because financially, women benefit more from a university degree. Put differently, women benefit less from a college degree than men do. Men who do not have a high level of education or training can more easily find a good-paying job among traditionally male jobs. Compare a plumber or civil engineer technician's salary with that of a child care worker or a secretary.

Women also favour university education over community or technical colleges because many of the fields of study in colleges are traditionally male and few efforts are made to make them equally friendly and responsive to women and men. A few years ago, New Brunswick abandoned its programs to recruit and retain women into non-traditional fields of study. Not only is there spectacular lack of success in attracting women to some trades and apprenticeships, but women who do eventually graduate from these non-traditional courses sometimes cannot find a job or leave because of the sexism.

The gender issues in post-secondary education contribute to lower average earnings and pension incomes for women, an inefficient use of human resources, an escalating s{blocked}s shortage and reduced overall productivity. As the World Economic Forum has shown in a recent report, societies with the most equality between the sexes are also the world's most competitive.

To achieve the full and fair participation of women in post-secondary education, the provincial government will need to make that part of the mandate of any change initiative.

(This column was published on 29 October 2007 in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and in French in Acadie Nouvelle.)

Ginette Petitpas-Taylor, of Moncton, is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She may be reached via e-mail at

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