Finland + Pisa-study = Gender Equality?

You have probably heard about the success story (https://ktl.jyu.fi/pisa/en) of Finnish education due to the global education survey PISA (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/). The last results from December 2016 show the spectacular climbing of Asian countries to the top positions of the ranking. However, the Finns are not discussing the Asian success story, but the governmental cuts in the education sector and, also, one thing that has not changed during the years: the difference in performance between girls and boys. This second issue puts Finland at the highest post internationally, in parallel with Iceland. That is the other side of the Finnish success story. 

While the rest of the world is amazed, in Finland there are many theories and discussions about what the reason for this growing inequality is. And this is not a new discussion, but a 20-year-old one.

While the Finnish girls are the second best in the world, the boys are on the 10thplace and falling in the ranking every year. Globally, 60% of those making the weakest performance in school are boys. In Finland (and Iceland), the boys make up to 70%. The biggest difference between girls and boys is found in reading performance. And Finnish boys report they are reading very little. In math and science, the differences between girls and boys are the smallest. A similar pattern can be found in the Nordic countries. On average, in Finnish schools, science topics are offered more often to the pupils than reading, which could be a reason to this difference (http://www.oph.fi/english/current_issues/101/0/finnish_kids_have_more_lessons_in_science_but_less_in_reading_in_oecd_comparison)

Although girls are performing better in science than they used to, boys still are a majority in the science programs at the university. This supports the re-constructing of one of the most gender-segregated workforce in Europe, in spite of the long term governmental program that aims at breaking down the gender segregated education and labor market.

So, there are some challenges, old challenges now, when we do a comparison with international results.

 In order to take actions to secure gender equality in the school environment, there is a need for an explanation of this gendered trend in the Finnish schools. Here are four of the most common arguments:

1. School is too much sitting and listening in silence, which is said to favor girls, either because girls in a higher extent believe in the teachers' authority or because girls are expected to be quiet and nice in school. 

Reflections: The Finnish school was originally planned and built for middle class boys and have not experienced any big changes the last 50 years. There is absolutely a need to reconsider the task of the school, rather than put the focus on which gender gain more or less from the system. 

2. Boys are weaker in performing as they are less mature, and the school system does not favor their developments process. 

Reflection: The discussion about boys being less mature becomes particular interesting when it comes to the solution. There is a mature test for children to measure their ability to start the school. The tests are different between boys and girls and the demands on the boys are lower. For who is this fair? Either to boys or girls. There is a no-discussion of putting boys later into school in order to “naturally” solve the problem, but more demand of school adapting to boy’s conditions. This highlights different interesting viewpoints as: Who is the norm for the school system? Who should adapt and based on which arguments? 

3. Boys are uninterested in performing well at school http://www.helsinki.fi/cea/fin/Docs/Gender%20differences.pdf.

 Reflection: In this discussion there is a lot of explanations about why, one of the answers the next statement on the list and we come back to that one. The feminizing of the school and the lack of role models is said to affect the motivation and this discussion usually turns to blame the female teachers instead of questioning men’s lack of interested in bringing up the new generations. There have been initiatives as quotas for men at the teacher’s education, but as quotas on a national level was primarily to support men rather then women, it was removed as a tool for increasing gender equality. There have also been discussions about the wages of the teachers and an increase would attract more men. This kind of discussions rather re-creates a norm of men only interesting in work for money and might not be the best reason why to work with pupils.

In Sweden they call this phenomenon of under-preforming as an “anti-study-culture” among boys. http://www.regeringen.se/49b719/contentassets/128cb1c062054e819f88f872a7bd7710/flickor-pojkar-individer---om-betydelsen-av-jamstalldhet-for-kunskap-och-utveckling-i-skolan-sou-201099That statement is based on the idea that in order to be a boy and masculine, one should not be connected to something that is labeled as feminine. The success of girl’s performance in school in the combination of the feminization of the teachers, boys are due to norms on masculinity not able to appreciate and be active in a school surrounding accept male label subjects in school. This discussion is not as strong as it is in Sweden as gender equality work in schools has been obligatory already a decade in Sweden.

4. Boys prefer technology instead of reading and working in traditional ways 

Reflection: In the former Nokia-land of Finland, the technology is a symbol for success stories like products as Angry birds, companies as Super cells or a technology start-up event as Slush. These are all very male dominated and the success stories focus on nerd-interests and self made rather than educational skills. This sector is very visible in the life of children and young people in Finland today. And there is still an idea that boys are using technology more then girls when it is rather difference how they use technology. Until now are no empirical research that shows that the performance among boys will increase through technology, rather that boys do not understand the importance of reading skills and writing.


When the rest of the world is asking what does Finland do right due to Pisa, in Finland we continue to be very keen to discuss the “poor” boys and how to help them. There is not one solution as there are too many explanations why it looks like this. A lot of teachers in the schools also acknowledge that it is not a single question about boys and girls, but about different boys and girls being very successful or less successful in school. Factors as class, mother tongue or geographical location are more visible on the field, but they are still strongly connected with the question of gender. 
In our work it is important that the objectives for the changes in the school are based on or strongly connected to the values in the particular school and the analysis of the challenges should be critical and based on facts, rather than assumptions.

Due to the four possible explanations above, there is definitely a need of changing the gender norms to favor active and critical citizenship rather than gendered patterns for successful learning and activities in the classroom.


CEO Malin Gustavsson, Ekvalita

Ekvalita has it own school team and has been supporting educational institutions in Finland for the past 15 years. http://www.tasa-arvokasvatuksessa.fi/english