Story: Gender inequalities

Page 5. Education

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Gender discrimination in education, as in other areas, has been evident in both formal and informal ways. Girls have faced less generous facilities, lower expectations and a narrower range of subjects. In the workforce, the jobs related to these subject areas have been less well rewarded.

Access to school and university

Primary schooling became universally free and available from 1877. The first girls’ secondary school opened in Dunedin in 1871, 15 years after the first boys’ secondary school. While access to primary school was granted automatically, girls’ access to secondary education required vigorous campaigning. Entry to university was relatively easily negotiated once secondary schooling was approved. Women were able to attend university from when the University of Otago opened, in 1871.


Educating girls was seen by many 19th-century parents as a waste of time. Their daughters would marry, keep house and raise children, none of which needed formal schooling. At both primary and secondary levels, girls were less likely than boys to attend school. The help they gave with household tasks was a significant reason for this.

Girls remained less likely to attend school in the early decades of the 20th century. This was particularly marked at secondary school. From 1944, when secondary school became compulsory to the age of 14, girls’ attendance matched that of boys.

Those going to university were an elite, and the numbers of women went up and down. During the two world wars the percentage of women students increased, but during the 1930s economic depression (particularly when the teachers’ colleges were closed), the percentage of women dropped. It did not recover to its 1920s level until the 1970s. In the 21st century there were more female than male undergraduates. In 2014, 61.3% of New Zealand graduates were women and 38.7% were men.

Limiting learning

In the early 20th century perceptions of women’s role in society and family began to shape the primary and secondary curriculum to a greater extent. A servant shortage and fears about higher education ‘unfitting’ women for marriage and motherhood led to domestic science becoming compulsory for all girls from 1917. It displaced all other science teaching, except for botany, below the sixth form.

Schooling for girls in the Native School system showed the same tendency. Māori girls were destined for motherhood and the ‘rescue’ of their 'race'; to this end, domestic skills, health and hygiene were a prominent part of their curriculum.

The same focus on domestic skills affected the technical schools that were set up from 1900. Girls could take courses in typing, shorthand and book-keeping – the trade-related courses boys took were closed to them. In some technical schools they were also taught domestic skills for several hours a week.

Avoiding housework

Many girls didn’t want to learn domestic skills alongside typing, and their parents agreed that it was a waste of time. To avoid classes in cooking and sewing they sent their daughters to private commercial colleges instead of their local technical school. Rather than badly paid, low-status domestic service, the girls aimed for clerical work – an occupation offering reasonable pay, limited hours and higher status.

Difficult and expensive subjects

There were other differences in the secondary curriculum. Mathematics in particular was identified as too taxing for girls, whose powers of ‘origination’ were seen as inadequate. Greek was not taught because of its content: delicate and pure-minded girls should not be exposed to references to homosexuality. Physics and chemistry were also less likely to be taught in girls’ schools, in part because of the expense of laboratories and equipment, but also because of a lack of female teachers trained in these subjects.

Changing expectations, changing achievements

The early secondary schools encouraged high aspirations among their students, but in the 20th century many girls were steered toward traditional, but poorly paid and relatively low-status occupations. An exception to this were elite schools, which continued to encourage able students.

In the 1970s and early 1980s some parents, teachers and students, influenced by the resurgent feminist movement, challenged the range of subjects taught and schools’ aspirations for girls. In the late 20th century expectations of girls increased and their achievements in high school surpassed those of boys. They also began to study a wider range of subjects.

By the late 1990s and early 21st century, girls were performing better than boys in national school qualifications completed in the last three years of high school. National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) qualifications were introduced in 2002, replacing School Certificate and Bursary qualifications. In 2015 girls performed better than boys in both external and internal assessment at all three NCEA levels and University Entrance. Girls and boys performed almost equally in New Zealand Scholarship examinations – the highest level school leaving qualification. However, while girls were succeeding in school and in subjects like mathematics, information technology and physics, they were still less likely to pursue further qualifications in these fields.


Although women were able to attend universities from the time they were established, areas of study such as medicine and law were almost closed to them. Arts and humanities subjects were regarded as more womanly. In 1911, as part of the drive to encourage scientific home management, diploma and degree courses in ‘home science’ were introduced. It was not until the 1990s that women appeared in significant numbers in courses such as law and engineering.

By the 21st century, women were more likely to participate in tertiary education (including university education) than men. In 2015 women were 61% of those enrolled in bachelors and postgraduate qualifications. They were, however, still under-represented in what were increasingly identified as STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. While they were over 60% of those enrolled in Bachelor of Science degrees in the 2010s, they were more likely to be involved in the health sciences than in engineering, information and communications technology or physics. As a result, special programmes were established in the early 21st century to encourage women into careers using new technologies in which there will continue to be job growth.

Discrimination against boys?

From the 1990s, as girls’ educational results improved, there was increasing concern that education discriminated against boys. Teaching methods and, at primary-school level, the predominance of female teachers were seen as supportive of girls’ rather than boys’ learning.

Boys tended to learn to read later than girls (as they do internationally), but this (like some other differences) was strongly affected by ethnicity, with Māori boys most likely to have difficulties. The socio-economic background of students was also a factor, as was the pressure on boys not to be associated with ‘feminine’ activities such as reading. Research done in the 1990s found that being taught by women did not reduce boys’ academic achievement.

New Zealand children’s performances in international tests applied in 2015 indicated that boys performed slightly better than girls of similar ages in mathematics and that girls performed much better than boys in reading. There were no significant differences in their achievements in science. Average achievement was above the OECD average for both boys and girls.

How to cite this page:

Anne Else, 'Gender inequalities - Education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2019)

Story by Anne Else, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Jun 2018