Feature: The Working Woman & ODL

By Dr Thirumeni T Subramaniam (thirumeni@oum.edu.my)

In this modern day and age, both men and women have equal rights to education. This has not always been the case. In the 18th century, feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft championed women's right to an education through her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She and other feminists paved the way for women having access to education, which enables them to empower themselves
in general and to achieve academically in particular, thus preparing them for entry into the job market.

It seems that their efforts have not been in vain. In the context of open and distance learning (ODL) locally, Open University Malaysia (OUM) pioneers the concept of education for all regardless of gender, social class, ethnicity or age. Today, we see more and more women making it to the university to further their education. OUM's method of delivery (ODL) is ideally suited for working women with families because it allows them to study at home while taking care of their other responsibilities.

Access to education for women is very important given that the gender ratio between male and female is 1:1 for the entire population of Malaysia. We are talking about 50% of the potential workforce which Malaysia can harness for its developmental goals. This ratio is also reflected in the net primary enrollment ratio. The net secondary enrollment ratio is higher at 1:1.14, while the gross tertiary enrollment ratio is even higher at 1:1.41 (www.genderandtrade.org). It appears that access to education is not an issue at all for women. If anything, it might be more of an issue for men now, seeing that the higher we go in education, the more we encounter male dropouts.

The next issue to be considered then is the academic performance of female learners at tertiary level. This invites us to consider the nature of intelligence and how it differs between men and women. Although there is a substantial body of research that confirms gender differences in terms of the various intelligences (visual, linguistic, mathematical, etc.), the specific nature of these differences varies by age, specific measure, magnitude, and variability within the groups. Reanalysis proves that gender differences does not account for more than 1% to 5% of the group variance (Vogel, 1990). In most cases, the gender gap is considerably smaller than other forms of inequalities, and there are several external factors that influence gender differences such as cultural expectations. In other words, gender is not the single overriding factor which should be considered here; other factors also contribute to intellectual differences and could possibly have more weight than gender.

One other interesting factor that we can look into here is learning style. Research suggests that males and females tend to have different learning styles, but there is a big overlap (Tinklin et al., 2001 and Barrett, E. and Lally, V., 1999).

Although there are gender differences in learning style, one cannot associate gender with specific learning styles. A study by Busato et al. suggests that learning styles have no positive correlation with academic performance. All these and educational achievement. If anything, only two factors (intellectual ability and achievement motivation) appear to have any real connection to academic success. These two factors pertain to the learner as an individual, not so much to the learner as a member of a certain gender.

Gender then becomes a non-issue when it comes to access to education and academic performance. As far as entry to the workforce is concerned, gender is still more or less a non-issue. Female economic activity in Malaysia (as a percentage of male rates) is lower by only 4% than the expected value based on the gross tertiary enrollment. In other words, the numerical difference between men and women who enter the workforce is rather negligible.

What is a concern, though, is the fact that the ratio of female to male estimated earned income is 0.36. That is to say, for every RM100 that a male earns, a female earns only RM36. Why is this so? Do ?glass ceilings? exist at the workplace? Perhaps this is true in some industries. This is probably due to cultural expectations which prescribe maternal and domestic roles to women in Asian countries.

So in short, the issue of gender only comes into play as far as financial remuneration is concerned. While gender equity is taken for granted now in education, it will be some more years before gender inequalities in the arena of employment begin to level out.

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