TORONTO - Robin Clouston cemented her choice for a future career during time spent in Grade 11 biology class.
"I was sure not only that I wanted to pursue medicine, but I knew that I wanted to deliver babies. And so, I thought that becoming a physician was the best way to do that," recalled Clouston, 26, who hails from St. John's, N.L.
Clouston is far from an outlier, according to the latest figures from the 2011 National Household Survey, released Wednesday by Statistics Canada.
Women accounted for 59 per cent of young adults aged 25 to 34 with a university degree, and 62.2 per cent of those with medical degrees — nearly twice the proportion of medical-school graduates aged 55 to 64, pointing to a dramatic increase in the future number of female doctors.
Clouston, president of the Canadian Federation of Medical Students, is set to begin her residency in family and emergency medicine on July 1, a three-year program at Dalhousie University in Saint John, N.B. It's been a steady stretch of schooling for Clouston, who previously attended Memorial University, where she observed a noticeable gender split within her post-secondary programs.
Females outnumbered males roughly 60 to 40 in medical school, said Clouston, who earned a bachelor of science degree in pharmacy where women filled 30 of the 40 spots — a career area that had once been male-dominated, she noted.
"Pharmacy appeals to women, I think, because it's a very people-oriented career," she said. "You're always talking to people and helping people and there's a lot of empathy involved in that career. And it's also very science-minded."
In 1990, 14 per cent of women aged 25 to 54 had a university degree — a figure that surged to 28 per cent in 2009, according to a separate Statcan study. What's more, 34 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 had at least a bachelor's degree in 2009 compared to 26 per cent of men.
Overall, women accounted for 53.7 per cent of all university degree holders in Canada aged 25 to 64, the 2011 survey found. Women represented 47.3 per cent of all adults aged 25 to 34 who had earned doctorates, compared with 31.6 per cent of those aged 55 to 64.
Women aged 25 to 34 also accounted for 58 per cent of those graduates with a master's degree.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released its "Education at a Glance 2013" report on Tuesday where Canada ranked first among 34 OECD countries with adults who had attained a tertiary (post-secondary) education — 51 per cent of 25-to-64-year-olds in 2011. That's well above the OECD average of 32 per cent, with Canada eclipsed only by the non-OECD Russian Federation at 53 per cent.
The report found women in Canada had significantly higher tertiary attainment rates compared to men (56 per cent versus 46 per cent), with a 16 percentage-point gap between the genders among younger adults.
As a single mother in her early 20s, Deanna Burgart felt it important to pursue a post-secondary education in a field that was both in high demand and fit her interests.
After graduating from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in 2000, Burgart worked as an engineering technologist for eight years before pursuing a chemical engineering degree at Lakehead University in Ontario. Now in her mid-30s and a married mother of three, she is working towards her professional designation in engineering.
"Leaving a great job and career that you love to move your family to Thunder Bay to get an engineering degree wasn't the easiest thing to do, but I'm so glad that I did it," said Burgart from Calgary, where she works for an engineering firm.
"It's always improved my own position and my family's well-being as a result."
Again, she's not alone. The 2011 Statcan survey found a spike in the number of younger women seeking engineering degrees in Canada — 23.1 per cent, compared with 8.5 per cent among their older counterparts.
Kathleen Lahey, professor in the faculty of law at Queen's University, said the trend towards more women pursuing post-secondary education has been a steadily growing pattern since the early '70s due to increased demand for women's labour in the market and the concurrent rise of women's equality laws in Canada.
"That seems to be the main motivating dynamic here. But within that, you can't just say: 'Oh, higher education equals better sort of life outcomes,' because within that, there's huge gender gaps," said Lahey, who conducts detailed research on law, gender and policy and is also a member of the department of gender studies at Queen's.
"There are gender gaps in who goes into what types of studies, there are gender gaps in who gets jobs after graduation and there are gender gaps in income."
A Conference Board of Canada report assigned a "C" grade to Canada with respect to the gender income gap, tied with the U.S. for 11th place among 17 peer countries.
The report cited Statcan data which found women aged 25 to 34 earned 78.3 cents for each dollar received by men in 2010, dipping to 75.7 cents among women aged 45 to 54. The largest income disparity was seen in health occupations, where women earned a mere 47 cents for each dollar earned by men.
Detailed statistics on earnings from the 2011 survey are due to be released in August.
"I would say that we still would find at the post-secondary level certain areas absolutely saturated still with young men who are doing very well and will make very good salaries," said Blye Frank, dean of the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia.
"If we look at the wage gap between men and women in Canada, certainly that is collapsing. But at the same time, I think the statistics show that men still make disproportionately more annual salary than women."
Gender plays less of a determining role than socioeconomic factors in terms of who succeeds and who fails in school, Frank said. Disadvantaged children from both genders don't fare well in public education, he noted.
"When we look at the single second category of girls and women, if they come from an economic disadvantage... they're women of colour, English isn't their first language and so on, then they — just like those boys — are not doing very well."
Those who are educated and economically advantaged, they have the privilege of taking leave, bolstered household income and greater flexibility, Frank noted.
"I would say in a general kind of way, we're looking at some gender role collapse — which I think most people would agree is a good thing — so that women and men can both be educated, both have a professional life, and certainly, can also expect to raise children within that."
While more women have been worker longer and gaining more education, Lahey said there's been little progress in terms of increasing relative income levels or wealth. That goes to both the quality of women's employment — who have more part-time work than men — and also the effect of recessions, she added.
Lahey said it will take change at all levels to make a true impact, and that better enforcement of "the simple principle of equality" would do a lot in both educational programs and the labour market.
Part of the reason women have such a strong record of pursuing further education, she said, is that it's "literally the best thing that they can do" to improve overall lifetime earnings and economic security.
"It's discriminatory, yes. They won't make as much as men, they won't have as much job security," she said.
"But the difference between the earnings level for a woman with just high school education versus a woman with some degree of post-secondary education from a college or a certificate or a degree, it is significant."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version gave an incorrect age range for a statistic on doctorates earned by women.
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