After two years of virtual meetings, the SLG was delighted to hold a live event on 28th February. The President of the Somerville Association, Baroness Alison Wolf (1967, PPE) spoke on “Expanding Universities and Expanding Women’s Opportunities: Does One depend on the other and can the future bring more of the same?”
Alison began with a question: have we come to the end of an era of university expansion during which women’s lives changed dramatically? Beliefs passionately held 10 years ago have changed, there’s something of a backlash against universities, and parents are visibly less certain about the merits of a degree which is no longer a guaranteed route to success.
Alison noted that the majority of university students worldwide are now women. The same is true of all ethnic groups in the UK. This outcome resulted from a labour market where more and more jobs required educated people. Women’s education developed in three phases. First, in the 19th century there was a realisation that sons with educated mothers would have better prospects for good jobs. In the second phase, an explosion of formal education needed ever more teachers. Teaching became a well-paid, respectable profession which for most women was the only option for a professional career and led to their undertaking a university education. Thirdly, gradually and rationally, businesses began to soak up women. As the labour market changed, a university education became more and more important.
Today this has resulted in very different labour markets. Graduate women tend to participate very much like men. But there’s a very big difference between the lifestyles and prospects of graduate and non-graduate women. The less educated are much more likely to have career breaks and to drop out of the labour market altogether. On average, a degree has more value to a woman than to a man.
Women still to a surprising degree tend to do caring jobs, men mostly not. The health professions are heavily feminine. Universities remain central to the healthcare and teaching professions.
However, the difference between graduate and non-graduate wages is narrowing. There is clear and growing evidence that the labour market is less hungry for highly educated individuals, not only in the UK. At the same time, there is a productivity slump, contrary to the belief held a few years ago that more graduates would lead to growth.
Therefore the soaking up of women by the labour market is petering out. The market is unable to keep increasing the proportion of highly paid professionals, hence the end of a trend which has lasted for 150 years or so, an era where the response of universities to societal changes has been superb for women. It is difficult to predict what will come next.
The Q&A raised further intriguing questions, such as why fewer women follow IT careers, how to incentivise mature students (including women returning to education) and whether the boarding model for universities is becoming outdated. Space is too short to say more other than thanking Baroness Wolf for kicking off renewed live meetings in such an informative and engaging way.