By Ken Harland and Sam McCready, co-directors of the Centre for Young Men’s Studies at the University of Ulster
On Tuesday we reported on new figures showing that in addition to the fact that young men are less likely to go to university than young women, when they graduate, they are also more likely to be unemployed. Here two experts in young men's development talk exclusively to insideMAN about why.
Reasons for gender differences throughout all levels of education are hotly debated and contested. However, once again we see concerning trends about (young) men and education with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showing male graduates are now 60% more likely to end up unemployed six months after graduating than female graduates.
We know that factors impacting upon educational underachievement are complex and must be considered within a wider context of socio-economic issues such as poverty, class, ethnicity, social disadvantage, a declining industrial base and less demand for traditional male jobs.
However, the socio-economic background of graduates is undoubtedly an important consideration in regard to gender, particularly as universities are increasingly targeting those from low participation neighbourhoods in an attempt to widen access and participation in higher education.
What do employers want?
What is unclear from the report is the specific classifications of female and male graduates. If, for example, females typically attain higher classifications, then a natural conclusion would be that females could have an educational advantage going into interviews.
But we know that in order to successfully gain employment an individual will need more than a high degree classification or other academic qualifications. Increasingly employers look for personal qualities, leadership potential, emotional intelligence, effective communication skills and the ability to work as part of a team.
It could perhaps be further hypothesised that females prepare more thoroughly for interviews and present themselves better than males to interview panels. It could also be the case that females have higher expectations and ambitions about employment than men. While these are important considerations, and more research is needed, it is likely that there are deeper and more complex underlying issues in higher education that merit further gender analysis.
'Pressures of becoming a man'
In our own longitudinal study in Northern Ireland post-primary schools ‘Taking Boys Seriously’ there was a significant lowering of aspirations amongst boys from the age of fourteen, particularly those from areas of high socio-economic deprivation. These boys believed that even if they did well in school and went to university they were unlikely to ‘get a good job.’ This ‘dawning of a reality’ in regard to future employment opportunities was in contrast to their stereotypical masculine expectations.
Appreciating complexities within the construction of working class masculinities is pivotal to understanding internal pressures that many males feel regarding their sense of identity and what it means to be a man.
Within many working class communities notions of men, education and work remain cemented within traditional male gender roles such as ‘provider and protector.’ Noticeably in the ‘Taking Boys Seriously’ study, there appeared to be little in place to support boys that helped them to explore, reflect and develop a critical understanding of masculinity or what it means to be a man.
What are the answers?
Boys also spoke of a lack of preparedness in making crucial life choices at 14 and 16 in regard to GCSE and A Level selection. They were concerned about how making the wrong subject choices would impact negatively upon their future employment opportunities and the type of skills and knowledge they would need in preparation for the workplace. The issues underpinning GCSE concerns for boys in our study were:
- a perceived lack of a social life while preparing for GCSE’s
- lack of clarity about the benefits of education for boys
- concerns about university debt for achievers
- no immediate perceived gratification or incentives for those who are underachieving
These were all identified as stressors that caused apathy and reduced the value that certain boys placed on education. Concurrent with ‘pressures and stresses’ of pre GCSEs, is the period in a boy’s life when he may be struggling or coming to terms with his masculine identity and contradictions in regard to what he thinks it means to be a man in modern society.
One note of caution we would add, is the need to look at the issue of trends in education in its entirety and not fall into the trap that we need to close the gap between male and female graduates and employment – educational gaps between boys and girls are clearly happening from a very early age.
This is not to say that young females do not face difficulties in regard to their education, life experiences, life choices and future employment opportunities – clearly they do.
The key point we would make is that despite much debate into gender within all levels of education, there still appears to be a lack of clarity about exactly what are the key issues in regard to gender differences in educational attainment and employment trends between men and women.
For the full report on Taking Boys Seriously see:
For more on this story see our article: 10 reasons more male graduates end up jobless