Tackling the gender divide

Let’s not pretend that boys are a different species, says Elina Lahelma.

Primary school children laughingFinland achieves some of the world’s highest scores in PISA, the global study of school student attainment, and is a Nordic welfare state in which women are in a relatively strong position. But a closer look at how the Finnish education system handles two important discourses related to gender reveals that even here, problems remain.

The gender equality discourse is founded on many international and national declarations, action plans, projects and conferences since the 1970s. They share the aim of gender equality in education, with an emphasis on the position of girls and women. In Finland, gender equality in education has been included in legislation from the 1980s. Since then, hundreds of projects and studies have analysed gender patterns in education and suggested new policies and practices. The 2010 Government Report on Gender Equality indicated that gender division is the main problem. The different educational routes for men and women remain strong despite efforts to challenge them.

The boy discourse is based on gender gaps in attendance, achievement and behaviour in school. In Finland, the media discourse on boys’ underachievement started in the 1980s and receives regular attention after the release of the PISA results. Results for Finland are constantly outstanding, with very small gender differences in sciences and mathematics. But media attention tends to focus on the gender gap in reading. This gap is wider than in other countries, even though Finnish boys still score excellently in international comparisons. In general, differences in achievement between boys and girls are minor compared to differences based on class and ethnicity.

The discourse on boys’ achievement is implicitly supported by the assumption that girls and boys are two different species. Many of the strategies to help boys, such as adding course content that is supposed to interest them, are based on the view that their ‘natural’ development is fundamentally different from that of girls. This goes against empirical evidence which suggests that variation within boys as a group – and girls as a group – is bigger than the variation between the genders in areas relevant to education.

The fact that students who receive poor grades and who have problems in school are mostly male should not be neglected. But research that draws on an understanding of masculinity suggests different explanations from those given in the boy discourse. Some researchers have asked what kinds of masculinities are being emphasised in school. Several studies suggest that boys who do well in school are often the targets of teasing, and this might happen more often in schools with students from working-class backgrounds.

The aim of gender equality policies is not only to promote equality in education, but also to promote equality through education. Studies in Finland and other Nordic countries suggest that gender segregation in further education and the labour market has benefited boys, whose opportunities are often better than would be expected on the basis of their school achievement. An obvious reason for this is gender division. In general, the educational fields that men aim for have easier access and better prospects in the labour market.  

Despite constant efforts, the gender equality discourse has yet to lead to sustainable change. One reason is that equality work is conducted in short-term projects and the results turn out not to be sustainable. Goals and actions to promote gender equality have not been mainstreamed or incorporated in education policy. There are also political problems. Boys’ lower school achievement is presented as an argument against feminism, and the interests of girls are seen as opposing those of boys.

The patterns identified here are not unique to Finland. There is evidence of similar tendencies in the UK and elsewhere. To address this situation, gender awareness is needed at all levels of education. This means consciousness of social and cultural differences, inequalities and otherness, all of which are built into educational practices, as well as a belief that these practices can be changed. It also includes an understanding of gender as being intertwined with ethnicity, age, sexuality and health, as well as with local and cultural opportunities and differences.

Elina Lahelma is a Professor in the Department of Education, University of Helsinki, Finland.

  1. Lahelma, E. (2014). Troubling discourses on gender and education. Educational Research, 56(2), 171–183.
  2. Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. (2010). Government Report on Gender Equality. Helsinki, Finland: Publications of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 2010:8.

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