Economics Department


Date of this Version

August 2008


Published in Frontiers in the Economics of Gender, ed. Francesca Bettio and Alina Verashchagina (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), Chapter 13; pp. 267–285. Copyright © 2008 Ann Mari May. Used by permission.


The importance of increased levels of education in improving the status of women throughout the world is well established. Higher levels of education are associated with lower birth rates, higher incomes, and greater autonomy for women. In fact, it has been argued that education is a fundamental prerequisite for empowering women in all spheres of society (Lopez-Claros and Zahidi 2005: 5).

In the last third of the twentieth century, women have made particularly significant strides in many countries. For example, UNESCO reports that women’s share of enrollment in higher education in Switzerland rose from 3 per cent in 1985 to 43 per cent in 2000 and in France, women’s share of enrollment increased from 50 to 55 per cent. Women’s share in Latin American colleges and universities over the same time period rose from 43 to 47 per cent in Chile, and 44 to 54 per cent in El Salvador. In India, women’s share has risen from 30 to 39 percent. While certainly not universal, this trend towards gender balance in student enrollment is remarkably similar in a large number of industrialized countries throughout the world.

The increase in the participation of women as students is now beginning to reach the highest levels of educational attainment. The Nordic Research Board (NORBAL) reports that women received 46 per cent of doctoral degrees awarded by universities in the Nordic and Baltic countries in 2005 — up from 28 per cent in 1990 (NORBAL 2005: 3). In the United States, in 2002, for the first time in American history, more American women than American men received doctorates from US universities (Hoffer et al. 2003).

The increase in representation of women as students in higher education has not, however, produced a proportional increase in the representation of women as faculty. For example, in 2000, women constituted only 4.4 per cent of faculty at Austrian universities, 11 per cent of faculty at German universities, 12 per cent in Swedish universities, and 10 per cent in UK universities (Zimmer 2003: 9). In 1995, UNESCO reported that in Norway and Canada women constituted only 21 per cent of faculty, and in the US only 31 per cent of faculty (UNESCO 2005).

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