The ‘Martha Effect’: The compounding female advantage in South African higher education

Author(s): Nic Spaull , Hendrik van Broekhuizen

Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. WP14/2017

Publication date: November 2017

Abstract:
In this paper we use population-wide panel data to follow every South African student from the 2008 cohort as they enter into and progress through university, following them for six years (N=112,402). We find indisputable evidence of a large female advantage that continues to grow at each hurdle of the higher education process. To be specific, relative to their male counterparts we find 27% more females who qualified for university, 34% more who enroll in university, 56% more who complete any undergraduate qualification and 66% more who attain a bachelor’s degree. This despite there being roughly equal numbers of boys and girls at the start of school. We show that this female advantage remains after controlling for school-level performance, and exists for all subgroups of race, age, socioeconomic status, and province of origin. We examine 19 fields of study and find that females are significantly more likely to get a degree in 12 of the 19 fields (often by substantial margins), and are significantly less likely to get a degree in five of the 19 fields. However, this is almost entirely because they do not access these traditionally ‘male’ programs rather than due to lower completion rates. Irrespective of field of study, race, age, socioeconomic status or location, females are always and everywhere 20% less likely to dropout than their male counterparts (including in traditionally ‘male’ fields like Engineering and Computer Science). Building on the idea of the ‘Matthew Effect’ in reading (the rich get richer), we present evidence of a gendered version of this phenomenon in higher education; what we call the ‘Martha Effect’.

JEL Classification:
I21, I23, I24, J16

Keywords:
Higher education, matric, gender, female advantage

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