Vic researcher questions women-only scholarships but changes unlikely

by / 28/07/08

The status of female-only scholarships has come under scrutiny as a result of a Victoria University researcher’s enquiry to the Human Rights Commission regarding their legality, but major changes to their legal status appear unlikely.

Victoria University Institute of Policy Studies senior researcher Dr Paul Callister recently wrote to the Human Rights Commission asking them to clarify whether women-only scholarships violate the Human Rights Act 1993.

The letter was prompted by his leadership of a three year $1.7 million Foundation for Research, Science and Technology project investigating the gap between male and female involvement and success in education.

Gender-based scholarships are allowable under the Human Rights Act, provided that they are addressing an existing inequality in society. However, Callister said that women have been outperforming men in education, rendering the scholarships unnecessary and potentially discriminatory.

According to statistics cited by Callister, female participation in tertiary education was 14.1 per cent higher than male participation in 2006, while 56 per cent more women than men aged 20 to 24 gained a degree or higher education between 2002 and 2006.

Callister attributed the increased educational participation and success of females to the introduction of courses like nursing and early childhood care at universities, which females are often over-represented in.

He also noted an increased effort to attract women into disciplines where they are underrepresented, such as engineering, “but no similar effort to attract men into the areas where they are under-represented, like teacher training or nursing.”

However, Callister did not believe that women-only scholarships were “a key reason for women doing better” in tertiary education.

NZUSA Women’s Rights Officer Analiese Jackson criticised Callister’s claims, stating that women-only scholarships “pose no threat to others’ participation, yet do make a positive difference to the recipients.” In addition, Jackson stated that women-only scholarships were often used to target areas where they were under-represented.

In response, Callister said: “It’s really hard to unpick where people are making active choices to pick subject or degree areas and where there might be discrimination”.

Callister believed this ambiguity also applied to inequality of income in favour of men, noting that “the biggest factor affecting it is women tending to be the one still cutting back paid work to look after children”.

While acknowledging that discrimination may influence different pay rates, he also felt that this disparity was emphasised more than the educational disparity between females and males – while a Human Rights Commission press release described a 14.2 per cent difference in hourly pay for 2006 in favour of men as “a wide pay gap,” “the same 14 per cent gap in tertiary participation, in favour of women, is seen by the Commission as a “slight” gap.”

However, the legality and quantity of womenonly scholarships is unlikely to change significantly. A Human Rights Commission press release responding to the issue noted that charitable trusts are exempt from the “unlawful discrimination provisions of the [Human Rights A]ct,” meaning that many gender-based scholarships are legal.

The Commission said it would “respond fully to the broader issue [of whether gender-based scholarships do discriminate] raised by the researcher in due course.”

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