Women outnumber men at university... until they reach doctoral level

Women outnumber men in tertiary education courses, but the balance suddenly shifts at doctoral level, according to figures published by the National Statistics Office. NICOLE MEILAK tries to find out why by speaking to experts

The trends are clear – women outnumber men at diploma, bachelor’s and master’s level. But the numbers turn on their head when women reach doctoral level, where men suddenly outnumber women.

Figures published by the National Statistics Office (NSO) last week back this up. Almost 67% of students enrolled in diplomas are women. At bachelor’s level, men make up 44% of the university cohort, while 56% of enrolled students are women. At a further master’s level, women make up almost 60% of enrolled students. Yet at doctoral level, almost 56% of students are men.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Prof. JosAnn Cutajar, who chairs the University of Malta’s gender equality and sexual diversity committee, says this trend is visible in data going back to 2014.

“Looking at University of Malta data, found in the annual reports from 2014 to date, male PhD candidates always surpassed females. Female students surpass males at Undergraduate and Masters level. When it comes to PhD students, male students tend to surpass female students, although the gap between the two genders has started to decrease in recent years.”

Recent data from 2020 onwards also showed that female PhD candidates go for part-time options, rather than full-time. “This is probably because they are more likely to be working and studying at the same time,” Cutajar said.

Age is a major contributing factor to why the doctoral degrees are so male-saturated. Cutajar said that most of those who choose to study for a PhD on a full-time basis tend to be under 31 years of age. “The bulk of the female PhD candidates were registered before and after the average childbearing age which, according to NSO, is 30 years. Part-time female PhD candidates tend to be older than their male cohorts when they register.”

Societal expectations

But societal expectations and pressures can be a contributing factor too. Cutajar referred to a survey conducted for NCPE, which suggested that female university residents tend to perceive themselves as the primary carers of children and the elderly. “This view might emanate from the way policies are worded (see for example parental leave) and institutional sexism when it comes to designing and enabling employees to access work life balance measures.”

Renee Laiviera, NCPE commissioner, also said that doctoral studies are usually taken up at the last stage of the educational ladder, at which point students, men and women, may have family responsibilities and work. “Yet, traditional gender role expectations are still prevalent in relation to core responsibilities, which are considered as a woman’s task.”

Laiviera referred to the Gender Equality Index 2023, which shows that women in Malta are more likely to care for their children and to do housework than men, and less likely to engage in leisure activities. “This gender gap in the use of time can limit the participation of women in activities such as education. Hence due to biases in societal expectations on the roles of women and men, it is much more difficult for women to find time for doctoral studies which entail allocation of considerable amount of study.”

Indeed, Cutajar said that more needs to be done to enable workers and students juggle with work, study and life in general. “This might mean providing free childcare facilities on site, as the University of Malta does. At the same time, PhD candidates need to access laboratories and IT at all times of the day. Those who do not have any help when it comes to taking care of dependants might find it more difficult to carry on with their research.”

‘Something had to give’

Nadia Abdilla, an equity coordinator at the University of Malta, pointed out that part-time studies take a long time to complete, and life circumstances may interfere with the process. “One such example is a female PhD candidate who had already completed her upgrade by her early 30s. During this journey she had a baby and returned to full-time employment. This meant that she had to change from full- time to part-time research and when the baby was due, she even decided to request a suspension of studies. Coping with a newborn baby and full-time work did not fit with doctoral research, even though she had a solid support structure. Although the student looks forward to resuming her studies, she felt that something had to give. This is not a solitary case.”

Laiviera also said it was hard for her to continue with her studies while balancing her work and family life. “This is not only my experience. It is the experience of most women who continuously discuss their difficulties, both online and offline, in reaching their full potential.”

Bridging the gap

There are solutions to balancing out the gap. Cutajar said knowing who is applying and obtaining postgraduate scholarships on a gender basis is a crucial aspect to this. “Scholarships to cover tuition and bench fees will help. In these contexts, PhD students are provided with financial support. This supports students who might be paying a mortgage, those who are breadwinners or those l need some type of financial assistance.”

And while promoting women’s access to education and employment is important, there are socioeconomic measures that need to be taken. “The burden of unpaid work undertaken in the private sphere needs to be shared between carers and supported by the state, institutions and the private sector. Policy makers and institutions need to take into consideration that student researchers tend to be not only workers but also carers. As a result, generous and coordinated statutory work- study and family policy schemes can be made available in both the private and public sectors,” Cutajar said.

Laiviera emphasised the need to promote work-life balance measures to help women continue with their studies, adding that remote working at higher levels could help create more opportunities for studies and career progression. “Although family-friendly measures are available to women and men, women are more likely to utilise such measures to reconcile their work and family life. Hence, work-life balance measures in the private sphere need to be strengthened whilst men need to be encouraged to take up such measures if women are to enjoy equal opportunities with men to study at doctoral level.”