Understanding the Gender Gap in University Participation: An Exploration of the Application Behaviour of Ontario High School Students

Research Summary: 

High school course selection and tracking significant factors in PSE gender gap

High school course selection and the practice of tracking (which divides high school students into academic or applied classes based on aptitude and interest) might help explain why more Canadian women than men are pursuing a postsecondary education.  

A new study commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), finds that while university application rates for both genders have increased over the last decade, there is a 16 percentage point gap between men and women in overall postsecondary completion — a magnitude that appears to be larger in Canada than in most other advanced countries, according to Understanding the Gender Gap in University Participation: An Exploration of the Application Behaviour of Ontario High School Students. The authors warn that the gender gap could affect the earnings potential of half of the labour force.

Project description

The study analyzed information from student applications submitted to the Ontario University Application Centre, linked with school-level data from the four publicly funded high school boards in Ontario (English and French public and separate schools).  The data included average test results on the grade 9 math tests administered by the Educational Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) and also considered neighbourhood socio-economic characteristics obtained from the 1991-2006 censuses. 


University application rates of women increased from 41 per cent of the potential applicant pool in 1994 to 52 per cent in 2006, while application rates of men rose from 32 per cent to 39 per cent in the same time period.   The study finds a link between university application rates of men and women and the percentage of each who take the academic versus applied EQAO mathematics test in grade 9.  Young women are somewhat more likely to take the academic test than young men.  According to the authors, this limited evidence suggests that high school course selection as well as student tracking may play an important role in explaining the gender gap in university applications.

The study notes that Ontario’s Ministry of Education has made changes to the high school math curriculum that provide new pathways from applied to academic tracks. The impact of these changes will require further research.

In university application rates, there were no significant differences between the four high school types, with a gender gap of close to 10 percentage points across the four boards.  The gap was also similar at schools serving high-income and low-income neighbourhoods.  While schools in lower income areas, rural schools and schools further from a university campus have lower application rates, separate schools have slightly higher rates than public schools. Overall, say the authors, school and neighbourhood characteristics explain a small proportion of the widening gender gap in applications to university. But they note that tracking and performance in grade 9 are significant factors in application rates and in explaining the PSE gender gap.

Further research/Policy implications

“With more detailed data at the high school level, a more elaborate investigation of the choices made by students and the potential causes of the gender gap in postsecondary education can be undertaken,” the authors say.

The PSE gender gap was also explored in the 2010 HEQCO @Issue paper – “What About the Boys?”  An Overview of Gender Trends in Education and the Labour Market in Ontario – which noted that despite the overall advances females have made in PSE attainment, they have not translated into full equality in career choices and earnings as compared to males in some occupations. The new HEQCO gender study also finds that there are large gaps across various disciplines, with women continuing to choose arts over science and engineering.

The slow growth in university attendance by Canadian men poses a serious policy challenge, say the authors. “Technological change and rising international trade have led to increasing demand for more highly educated workers, creating a skill gap in the Canadian labour market. Assuming that these trends continue, the relatively low rate of [male] university attendance… will contribute to a widening gap between the needs of employers and the available skills of the male work force for decades to come.”

Abigail Payne, co-author of HEQCO’s recent publication Understanding the Gender Gap in University Participation, discusses why more women than men are attending university.

Understanding the Gender Gap in University Participation: An Exploration of the Application Behaviour of Ontario High School Students was written by David Card, University of California at Berkeley; A. Abigail Payne, McMaster University; with Cristina Sechel at McMaster University.​