AUSTRALIA: No longer the second sex

More girls than boys finish secondary school in Australia, more go on to university, more complete their degrees and now more are enrolled in postgraduate studies. An extraordinary transformation has occurred between the genders. But does this threaten the future of the male sex?

In the little red schoolhouse and at university, girls and their older sisters are not only more numerous they are also continuing to outperform males.

For it is the boys who fill the detention and remedial groups at school, who drop out of university – if they even get that far – in greater numbers, who are slower to read, who are more troublesome, more aggressive. They lag behind the girls in their studies and by year 12 girls score higher marks in almost every subject they sit.

To give just one example: 56% of the 13,000 students who obtained tertiary entry scores of 80 and above in the 2005 Victorian Certificate of Education were girls. Overall, the girls achieved a score of 63 compared with 59 for the boys.

Although more boys are born, they are less likely to survive infancy. If they do and they actually reach the stage of beginning to toddle and talk, it will be later and more awkwardly than their smarter female siblings – which is perhaps why they soon start pulling girls' pigtails and flicking up skirts with their rulers.

In one of her more provocative essays, Germaine Greer wrote that a kind of mad squeamishness prevents women from quantifying the nuisance value of maleness. She thought this was probably because "if you actually tell men that they are damned nuisances, they are likely to behave even worse". So what does Greer think is the cause of male alienation?

"Feminism, that's what. When feminism came along and drew women out from under men, men found themselves in freefall. Liberated women could change their own light bulbs and tap washers and engine oil, so men felt unwanted...

“No wonder men went off in an enormous sulk, refused to do their homework or tidy their rooms, ran round the streets shouting and writing on walls, baulked at committing themselves in relationships, and wandered off into a fantasy world of pornography, sport and grotesquely violent video games. Women made men redundant; redundant tissue inevitably turns malignant."

Greer argues that male hierarchies are built on conflict and competition - not between men and women but between man and man. She says all the winners are eventually losers, unseated by younger, hungrier, leaner males.

Except that today, the male losers are being replaced by winning women who may also be hungrier and leaner.

Those women are now pouring out the gates of Australia's universities. Male students – and their lecturers – dominated the campus for 135 years until 1987 when, for the first time, female students began rapidly outnumbering them.

Of the nearly one million local and overseas students enrolled in Australia’s universities this year, about 56% are women.

And, as happens in school, it is the females who do better overall and have higher completion rates: among the 175,000 students who graduated from university last year more than 100,000 were women.

A key factor in the rise of women on campus appears to be marked differences between the aspirations of the two sexes. Successive studies have shown that no matter if a family is wealthy or poor, well educated or illiterate, many more of their female offspring hope to go to university than the males – and they do.

Although the tendency for girls to aim higher than boys applies across the social classes, it’s no surprise that a far greater proportion of youngsters from professional homes enrol in higher education. Yet even when factors such as family income and class are accounted for, female participation is 50% to 60% greater than that for males.

A federal Education Department survey of 7,000 students in years 10-12 across three states revealed that, compared with girls, the young males exhibited “less commitment towards school and were less likely to see higher education as relevant or attainable”.

"Females tend to experience a far more supportive interpersonal environment,” a report of the survey noted. "They are more likely than males to believe most of their friends will go to university and also more likely to believe their teachers are encouraging them to aim for university."

While these attitudinal differences have contributed to males becoming the second sex on campus, men could once take comfort from the fact that women were mostly enrolled in a few ‘typically feminine’ courses such as teaching and nursing.

Today, however, they dominate six of the 10 major fields of study and continue to increase their numerical superiority in the traditional fields.

In the faculties of education and health, female students outnumber males more than three to one while in the arts and humanities there are two women for every one of the opposite sex.

At the same time, women are boosting their enrolments in agriculture and architecture and will soon be in the majority in the business faculties. Only in engineering and information technology are they still very much a minority.

Academics used to worry their female students were concentrated in undergraduate degree courses. Not any longer: almost the same number of women as men are now undertaking postgraduate programs.

While men are numerically superior among those enrolled in masters degrees by coursework and research, the gender balance is just about equal for doctoral students.

As more and more women with PhDs have joined the academic community, they have become the majority among lecturers and lowly tutors. But at the senior levels, the imbalance is stark with the male to female ratio among professors and associate professors about five to one while there are roughly two male senior lecturers to every woman.

Yet just as women were once outnumbered within the student body but eventually came to occupy most of the seats in the lecture theatres, so too will they move into the positions of power. In the three years to 2005, the proportion of women among the professors jumped from 18% to 21.5% and from 32% of senior lecturers to more than 35%.

As the huge numbers of females with PhDs move up through the system, those proportions will again be reversed and the fairer sex will then be truly dominant.

Yet the picture is not so rosy for many women who graduate and go out into the world, at least in terms of their prospects for marriage and children.

Social researchers believe the growing education gap between the sexes could have profound consequences for the future given that in the 25 to 34 marrying years, there are now nearly 100,000 more Australian women with university degrees than men.

This education divide is confronting young women with a chronic problem: where are all the good men?

A highly educated class of ambitious young females now exists that in the past would have sought better qualified mates, men who earned more than they did. Today that group is sadly depleted.

Similarly, men traditionally have preferred wives with either less or the same amount of education as themselves. Australia could soon become like Hong Kong and Singapore where thousands of young women graduates cannot find a husband because less-educated Chinese men will not marry them.

Already in Australia, nearly half the 175,000 or so degree-carrying women in the 25 to 29 age group do not have partners and a third of those aged 30 to 34 similarly lead single lives.

The proportions for women with no post-school qualifications are far lower and some researchers have concluded that well-qualified, high-income women are facing a situation where they have effectively educated themselves out of the marriage market.

Could the time arrive when these women will have to look to their own sex for survival? Oxford University geneticist Bryan Sykes thinks so. In his book, Adam’s curse: A future without men, Professor Sykes declares that men will probably disappear altogether – eventually.

OK it might be in another 5,000 generations and not because men were finally outsmarted by women but because of their genes. Sykes argues that dwindling fertility and a decrepit Y chromosome will consign the male sex to the past, joining the Neanderthals, Homo erectus and the long line of pre-humans in the dustbin of history.

“I predict the Y chromosome will be so damaged that males will only be 1% as fertile as they are now," he says gloomily. "The chromosome is a genetic ruin, littered with molecular wreckage... a graveyard of rotting genes and one day it will become extinct."

And then so will men.