By nearly every measure, women outperform men at school and university.

More women attend secondary school and university in New Zealand, more women complete their qualifications, and women generally achieve at higher levels.

But the progress made by women in this country's education system has been uneven.

It has not translated into top jobs at universities. It is also not fully recognised when women enter the workforce.


Men earn more than women in their first year of work after tertiary study, and the gap widens from there. If they have masters or doctorate degrees, the earnings gap is even higher - as much as $11,000 after five years. Research by the Ministry for Women has found that 80 per cent of this pay disparity is the result of unconscious bias.

Although more women are heading into subjects like science, law, accounting and engineering, the hangover remains from a time when women were encouraged to study what were once considered "feminine" subjects - the arts and humanities.

"Although we've moved on, there's obviously still a lag from when women were being persuaded to do non-science subjects," said Agnes Naera, the equity director at AUT's Law and Business Faculty.

"Air New Zealand came to me last year and said, Agnes, we need a Māori woman doing engineering. I could name two on my hand. That's all."

The movement of women into Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has accelerated over the past 10 years, encouraged by government and industry initiatives. In that time, the number of female engineering students at the University of Auckland rose from 407 to 900.

But Naera said reversing the imbalance in traditionally male fields was a slow process.

Women still make up less than a quarter of engineering students nationwide, and less than a third of information and communications technology (ICT) students. This is a problem because these fields are where many jobs will come from in future.

It was partly up to women to "step forward" into these fields, Naera said. Businesses also needed to recognise the value of diversity, both to innovation and to their bottom line.

"Having women in areas where they have not featured, you start to get that diversity of thought much quicker, often much smarter."

High rates of participation and achievement have not meant that women have risen through the ranks at universities.

Girls have attended school at similar rates to boys since the mid-1940s, when secondary school became compulsory in New Zealand. They started outperforming boys academically in the late 1990s.

Women's participation rates at university have been equal with men since the 1970s. By last year, 62 per cent of graduates were women and 38 per cent men. But just 28 per cent of professors and associate professors in New Zealand universities are women.

Professor Kate Kearins, Dean of Business, Economics and Law and AUT, said there was now far greater recognition that there should be more women in senior educational positions.

"With that recognition though comes more polished excuses about why there aren't more women in senior roles – often to do with merit or an inferred lack of it, or women not having stepped forward for these roles," she said.

"A 'blame the women approach' still exists."

She said there should instead be more discussion of whether senior roles were attractive to women.

Professor Jayne Godfrey, Dean of the University of Auckland's Business School, said she had been on selection panels where other members had doubted whether a woman would take on a senior role because of the impact it might have on their marriage or their parenting.

"I have seen it in the last decade," she said. "It does still happen."

It could take "a generation or two" to break down the bias that leads to more men getting top jobs in education, she said.

"Because it will be through demonstrated achievement and erosion of very unconscious biases that are quite strong.

"I've not normally been an advocate of affirmative action, but sometimes, for a period of time, there should be some sort of quota introduced until that becomes the norm."

Naera said single-sex schools were one of the possible solutions to improving women's outcomes at university and in the workplace.

"Knowing girls who come in from single sex schools, they most certainly come in with an edge. They haven't had the opportunity to be peer-to-peer with young men, so what they know is that they are good at everything."


Mechanical engineering student Mackenzie Round is one of a slowly-growing group of women going into STEM subjects. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Mechanical engineering student Mackenzie Round is one of a slowly-growing group of women going into STEM subjects. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Mackenzie Round knows what it feels like to be in the minority.

As a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Auckland, the 22 year-old is usually the only woman in her tutorials.

"When I was first year, I was very overwhelmed by most of my classes being male-dominated. Everywhere I looked there were boys."

During her first year's summer break, she took an internship at a small family-owned factory to get some experience of the manufacturing industry.

"They'd never had a student before. It was 30 males working on the factory floor and I just come along in my overalls and steel caps and I'm like 'Hi everyone, how's it going?'."

Round is one of a slowly-growing group of women heading into Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in New Zealand.

More than half of New Zealand girls express a strong interest in Stem subjects at school. A much smaller proportion of them actually pursue those subjects at university. And fewer still get jobs in these areas. Women make up just 23 per cent of the IT sector and 13 per cent of the engineering industry. And just a fraction of those – around one in 10 - are Māori or Pacific women.

New technology and changes in the workplace mean that Stem fields are where the most jobs will be in future. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment lists civil engineers, science technicians, software developers, farm managers, and agricultural and forestry scientists as among the most in-demands jobs in the country.

Round cites her supportive school environment at Baradene College as major factor for her going into engineering.

"I loved physics and maths at high school, and it was at an all-girls school which was really encouraging. There was a lot of support from my teachers, who said 'You can do this'.

"I think some people from co-ed schools struggle with that a little bit."

She had to take a maths paper outside of school to meet the entry requirements for engineering. Just four of her peers made the same choice of degree.

Despite the initial culture shock at engineering school, she quickly found her feet.

"I think that growing up I obviously had a lot of girls around me. Getting here, all these boys also think they can do it and why would I be better than them? But once you start realising that you can keep up with the boys, it becomes a lot easier."

Round has already secured a job at Auckland-based engineering firm Beca, which she said was trying to increase its intake of woman graduates.

Ministry of Education figures show that men with a Bachelor of Engineering degree with typically earn nearly $5000 more than women in their first year after study.

"It's a genuine concern," Round said. "I don't think I'll ever let it go under the radar, I'll always stand up to something like that."