Census data shows that 51 per cent of women aged 20 to 29 have either a degree or college diploma and only 16 per cent dropped out of school. For men the figures are 42 per cent and 21 per cent.
Women's participation in post-secondary education has more than trebled (compared to a 3 per cent rise for men) since 1981 when only 16 per cent had a degree or diploma and the drop-out rate has nearly halved.
Helena Daly, consultant for guidance, co-operative education and alternate schools, attributes this improvement to the "determination of young women to excel" and to enrichment programmes used to encourage girls to stay in school and pursue careers.
Robby Harrison, Nova Scotia's minister of education, credits gender-equity schemes - such as scholarships for women who pursue careers in engineering and physics. And Judy Wagner of the New Brunswick department of education sees the figures as proof that programmes to counter hidden sexism have worked. These include checklists to ensure that texts and activities are gender neutral; a new guidance curriculum designed to stop counsellors discouraging girls from pursuing non-traditional careers; mentoring programmes and, beginning this year, a programme entitled Women in Cyberspace.
Dr Gordon Betcherman, an economist with the Canadian policy research network, is alarmed by the growing female to male differential and its effect on employability. In 1981 the gap in the drop-out rate was 3 points (28 per cent to 31 per cent); today it is 5 points.
"Then the 31 per cent of males who didn't complete high school could find well-paid manufacturing jobs. Today's economy has nothing to offer the 21 per cent who enter the labour market without a high-school diploma."
Adrienne Snow, director of policy for the National Foundation for Family Research and Education, attributes the boys' drop-out trend to the way schools have been skewed towards girls. "Girls are more comfortable with co-operative learning. Boys like to get right in and debate, interrupt and hog the spotlight," she said.