Women-only scholarships under spotlight

Last updated 09:00 20/07/2008

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Women-only educational scholarships are facing a legal challenge under human rights laws because they may discriminate against men.

In what may become a global test case, Victoria University Institute of Policy Studies senior researcher Dr Paul Callister has asked the Human Rights Commission to clarify its position, saying women significantly outperform men in education and therefore there may be no inequality for such scholarships to rectify.

Human Rights Commission's chief commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, said she would carefully examine the issues and questions raised by Callister before responding.

Under national and international human rights laws, temporary measures such as the scholarships are allowed to address inequality between the sexes and are deemed not discriminatory but must be stopped when equality is achieved.

"Historically, women-only scholarships were justified, but now they aren't disadvantaged in education. My view is these scholarships are discriminatory now because we're past the point of needing special treatment for getting women into universities and degrees," Callister told the Sunday Star-Times.

Instead, he believed women-only scholarships should be made gender- neutral so anyone in need could apply. "Gender is no longer the clear marker of disadvantage that it once was."

Callister is leading a three-year $1.7 million project, funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, which is investigating the gap between men and women's participation and achievement in education.

The project found significantly more women than men in Australia and New Zealand completed university degrees or higher qualifications in recent years. Between 2002 and 2006, 56% more women than men aged 20-24 gained a degree or higher education in New Zealand. In Australia, that gap was 53% over the same period.

By 2006, there were 23,900 more women than men, aged 25-34, with a degree or higher qualification in New Zealand. And Education Ministry statistics show that more women than men completed all levels of secondary and tertiary qualifications in 2006, from Level 1 NCEA to doctorates. Overall, 61% of those finishing qualifications were women and 39% were men.

Callister said it was a global trend and believed a review of women-only scholarships was needed internationally.

Many women-only scholarships were established in the 1970s when women were under-represented in tertiary education but now men had become significantly under- represented, Callister said. Key groups offering such scholarships include the New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women, Zonta, Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust, New Horizons and New Zealand Medical Women's Association plus the Kate Sheppard Memorial awards.

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New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee administers about 40 national scholarships at the country's eight universities. Committee scholarships manager Kiri Manuera said only one was available solely to women - the $50,000 New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Scholarship. Applicants had to be high- achieving female law graduates wishing to do further postgraduate study.

Foundation director Lynda Hagen said it canvassed the legal community several years ago about whether the scholarship should be ditched because of gender changes in education. However, its feedback was the scholarship was still appropriate because it was designed to commemorate New Zealand's first female lawyer.

"We will be very interested in what the human rights commissioner says and would follow any guidelines put out about it. If we were informed we had come to a time to make a change, we would open it up to both genders."

- Sunday Star Times

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