Gender in Education: A Collection of Educational Research in the Nordic Countries

Editors: Jenni Helakorpi, Ylva Odenbring and Venla Toivonen

Gender in education is often a controversial topic; it is discussed at many levels in the society, but an existing body of research literature can sometimes be difficult to locate.

The intention with this collection is to give a brief introduction to parts of the research that have been conducted in the field of gender and education in the Nordic countries. See our Editorial: Gender Equality, Social Justice and Education in the Nordic Countries below. Besides the editorial this collection consists of ten contributions organised into the following themes: Early Childhood Education, Secondary Schooling, Academic Achievement, Educational Choices and Teacher Education.

The target audience includes teacher educators, teachers, policy makers and practitioners interested in these issues. Each contribution is introduced by a short text about the main content of the article. We hope that this collection serves as a ‘first step’ towards learning more about gender and education.

EDITORIAL: GENDER EQUALITY, SOCIAL JUSTICE AND EDUCATION IN THE NORDIC COUNTRIES

Introduction

The Nordic countries, i.e., Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, have long had a reputation as being among the most gender equal and socially equal countries in the world (Arnesen & Lundahl, 2006). A comprehensive school system and early childhood education for all children regardless of the children’s social background and demographic location have characterised the Nordic educational system (Gordon, Lahelma & Beach, 2003; Odenbring, 2014; Tallberg Broman 2009, 2010).

Furthermore, in the curricula in the Nordic countries gender equality in education has been emphasised (Arnesen et al. 2014). In terms of creating and maintaining social justice in education, the importance of gender equality as well as equity in both early childhood education and higher school levels has also been shown and underlined in contemporary research (Odenbring et al., 2017; Odenbring & Lappalainen, 2013; Sernhede & Tallberg Broman, 2014; Education for tomorrow, 2018).

Research on Gender and Education in the Nordic Countries

The concept and phenomena of gender have been and are being debated within gender research and the ways the concept is employed for empirical analysis in education is under constant discussion and elaboration (see e.g., Francis 2010). The Nordic gender and education studies started in Sweden, Denmark and Norway in 1970s and in Finland in 1980s (Lahelma & Öhrn, 2017). Gender as a concept is not stable or agreed upon although in mainstream research gender is and has been often perceived as a self-evident variable. Researchers have attempted to determine the differences between assumed two genders, female and male. Research in gender differences was especially prevalent in the early 20th century (Lahelma 1992) and such research is still conducted today.

However, in critical research on gender, the idea of gender as a self-evident dichotomic difference between people is being problematised and taken under analysis. Gender is rather understood as something that is produced and maintained in societies and their institutions, rather than an aspect people are born with or that is stable and ‘natural’. The notion of two ‘opposite’ genders has been deconstructed especially in the field of queer studies (e.g., Butler 1990).

Furthermore, intersectionality as a concept has become important: originating from black feminism and introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), the concept emphasises how other dimensions of difference or systems of oppression cannot be separated from gender. Thus, gender cannot be understood without elaborating it together with other social categories such as race/ethnicity, sexuality, social class or disability: pupils categorised as ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ are not uniform. Depending on theoretical take, there is a variety of ways to trouble the category of gender and research on gender and education in the Nordic countries has been diverse.

Internationally, when gender in education increasingly became a research focus in the 1970s, the studies were often small scale and qualitative (Lahelma 1992). Since the 1980s, there has also been a lot of qualitative research in the Nordic countries (Öhrn, 2002). Researchers became interested in the processes of school and gender in the interaction of classrooms and the first school ethnographic studies were conducted. Statistical analysis of gendered phenomena such as segregation in education and work were also prevalent; it aimed to show gendered tendencies that were not recognised in societies (Lahelma 1992). During the 1980s, interviews became common in research and later ethnographic studies have also become increasingly frequent in research on gender in education.

Another important field in research has been text book analysis from a gender perspective, which strengthened in the 1980s (Lahelma 1992). In the vast body of Nordic research in gender and education, there has been a shift from strong state feminism towards analysis of delicate meaning making in the everyday life of school (Lahelma & Öhrn 2017). Nordic research on gender and education has achieved a quite strong position in the Nordic countries and it has become internationally more visible in recent years (Lahelma 2015).

Nevertheless, the use of the research in teacher education remains quite unexplored (Lahelma & Tainio, in press). It is our intention and hope that this collection will encourage teacher educators as well as other professionals in education and elsewhere to learn more about contemporary Nordic research on gender in the field of education. Consequently, this collection could encourage more educational professionals to use contemporary research in their teaching.

Editors

Jenni Helakorpi, (M.A.), a doctoral student in the Nordic Centre of Excellence Justice through Education, at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki. In her PhD dissertation she studies the policies and practices that aim to promote the basic education of Roma and Traveller minorities in Finland, Norway and Sweden. 

Ylva Odenbring, PhD and Associate Professor of Education, Department of Education, Communication and Learning, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her main research interests are in the field of gender studies and social justice in early childhood education as well as compulsory school levels. Currently she is the research leader of two national research projects: Youth, vulnerability and school. Students' perspectives on violence, harassment and violations (2018-2020), funded by the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (Forte) and the research project Youth, violence and exposure: a study of students’ experiences of harassment and violations in school (2017-2020), funded by The Swedish Crime Victim Compensation and Support Authority. She teaches modules at the undergraduate and postgraduate level and supervises and teaches PhD students in the field of child and youth studies.

Venla Toivonen, Research Assistant, University of Helsinki, Finland.

The editors Venla Toivonen, Jenni Helakorpi and Ylva Odenbring in summer 2017.

 

 

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Gender, order and discipline in early childhood education

Author: Ylva Odenbring (2014)

  • Different gendered norms were enforced through order and discipline in the everyday practice of the preschool class.
  • Only girls were given the responsibility and duty to serve as ‘dampers’, i.e. to help the teacher calm noisy boys by placing the girls next to a group of boys.
  • Both boys and girls were asked to conform to the teacher assistant role, i.e., assist the teachers with different tasks.
  • Since the teacher assistant role was rewarded by the teachers, the children also conformed to the teacher assistant role on their own initiative by helping in the preschool class

This article explores gender constructions of the daily practice of a Swedish preschool class (early childhood education for six-year olds). The study draws from ethnographic fieldwork conducted during a period of six months. This ethnographic study was the first of its kind in Sweden and is still the only ethnographic study exploring issues of gender conducted in Swedish preschool class context. The results indicate that gender patterns were challenged as well as maintained in the everyday practice of the preschool class.

Odenbring, Ylva. (2014). Gender, order and discipline in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Childhood, 42(2), 345-356.

In ‘the Educational Twilight Zone’: Gendered Pedagogy and Constructions of the Ideal Pupil in the Transition from Pre-Primary Education to Compulsory Schooling in Finland and Sweden

Authors: Ylva Odenbring and Sirpa Lappalainen (2013)

  • Gender was expressed in various ways but reproducing gender dichotomies was quite common in all investigated preschool class settings.
  • Boys’ lack of precise motor skills was discussed by the Finnish practitioners.
  • In both countries the girls were expected to conform to a role of ‘good girl femininity’.
  • When teachers create gender dichotomies in the daily practice, the children will experience and learn that there are different gendered worlds for boys and girls.

This cross-cultural and meta-ethnographic study explores gender constructions in terms of how the ideal school child was constructed in Finnish and Swedish preschool class contexts. More specifically the aim of the study was to explore how children were fostered to conform and become an ‘ideal school child’ in the everyday practice of the preschool class, i.e., the year before compulsory schooling.

Odenbring, Ylva. & Lappalainen,  Sirpa. (2013). In ‘the Educational Twilight Zone’: Gendered Pedagogy and Constructions of the Ideal Pupil in the Transition from Pre-Primary Education to Compulsory Schooling in Finland and Sweden. Nordic Studies in Education, 33(4), 329-343.

SECONDARY SCHOOLING

Gender Patterns and Student Agency: Secondary School Students' Perceptions over Time

Author: Ann-Sofie Holm (2010)

  • The students reported that classroom behaviour is still strongly gendered.
  • Over time the girls have become more active in the classroom and career-oriented.
  • Despite some changes over time, male dominance remains and it is still more advantageous to be a boy in school.
  • The power relations between boys and girls seem to be quite stable over time.

In this article the author explores Swedish secondary-school students’ perceptions of gender over three decades. This study draws from three different surveys that were carried out in the 1970s, 1990s and the early 2000s. The author concludes that from the 1970s onwards, there are both stable and changing gender patterns in secondary school.

Holm, Ann-Sofie. (2010). Gender pattern and student agency. Secondary school students’ agency over time. European Educational Research Journal, 9(2), 257-268.

Gender in Finnish school textbooks for basic education

Author: Liisa Tainio (2012)

  • Finnish textbooks naturalise gender bias.
  • Males constituted 61.5 percent of 7,762 pictures of persons or fictional characters and females were 33.9 percent; 6.7 percent of the characters were not clearly gendered.
  • In the textbooks, a clear majority of gender-specific words referred to males.
  • The textbooks are inconsistent in their explicit perceptions of gender issues: some exercises turned the reader’s attention to gender equality in texts but the texts also contained explicitly gendered and heterosexist paragraphs.
  • The teachers noticed the visual bias but the bias in gender-specific words was not noticed when leafing through the books. However, the teachers were worried about the lack of women authors presented in the textbooks.
  • It may be difficult to observe ideologies in textbooks if one is not guided to critically analyse textbooks from this perspective.

Textbooks are an essential part of schooling and although teachers can use textbooks in a critical manner, ideologies embedded in textbooks have an impact on students and school practices. Previous studies show that gender bias and heterosexism is prevalent in textbooks. In this chapter Liisa Tainio analyses how gender is visible in Finnish literature and Finnish language textbooks and how two teachers observe the gender ideology of the textbooks in a discussion.

Tainio, Liisa. (2012). Gender in Finnish school textbooks for basic education. In Tolonen, Tarja; Palmu, Tarja; Lappalainen, Sirpa; Kurki, Tuuli (Eds.). Cultural practices and transitions in education. 211–225.

ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

Crossing boundaries? Complexities and drawbacks to gendered success stories

Authors: Ann-Sofie Holm & Elisabet Öhrn (2007)

  • Boys with immigrant background challenge the stereotype image of being ‘the problematic immigrant boy’.
  • For this group of boys, academic achievement was also connected to showing gratitude towards their parents.
  • The academically successful girls performed an emphasized form of femininity.
  • The girls’ femininity was framed and performed through popularity and heterosexuality.

This book chapter addresses one of the most debated topics regarding gender and academic achievement in school. During recent decades students’ academic achievement has frequently been debated in the media in Sweden and elsewhere. However, the focus of this debate has often been one-sided in that it only focuses on boys’ underachievement. In this book chapter, the authors challenge this one-sided picture by pinpointing other dimensions of students’ academic achievement.

Holm, Ann-Sofie. & Öhrn, Elisabet, Öhrn. (2007). Crossing Boundaries? Complexities and Drawbacks to Gendered Success Stories. In Marie Carlson, Annika Rabo and Fatma Gök (Eds.), Education in ‘Multicultural’ Societies – Turkish and Swedish Perspectives. (pp. 181-195). Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, Transactions, vol. 18.

Governance by marks—an ethnographic study of school achievements and gender

Authors: Asp-Onsjö, Lisa & Holm, Ann-Sofie (2014)

  • Students and teachers understanding of students’ academic success or failure was explained and framed from the individual student’s performance.
  • The narratives about girls’ academic success was framed from their structural subordination which forced them to work harder.
  • Even though the girls in the study outperformed the boys, the dominant understanding was that the boys had more potential and talent.
  • Intersections of gender, class and ethnicity had an impact on how the students’ actions and performances were understood.

Have you ever wondered how grades and assessment of performance construct the everyday life of school? What about the strategies students have in order to perform in a manner that becomes assessed as good and what do these strategies have to do with gender? Have you ever noticed that the students need to expend a lot of effort to understand what the different teachers want from them and figure out how to play “the classroom game”?

Asp-Onsjö, Lisa. & Holm, Ann-Sofie. (2014). Governance by marks—an ethnographic study of school achievements and gender. In Arnesen, Anne-Lise; Lahelma Elina; Lundahl Lisbeth and Öhrn Elisabet (Eds.), Fair and competitive? Critical perspectives on contemporary Nordic schooling. (pp. 61-81). London: The Tufnell Press.

 

EDUCATIONAL CHOICES

Gendered Post-Compulsory Educational Choices of Non-Heterosexual Youth

Author: Jukka Lehtonen (2010)

  • Sexuality has a significant impact on young people’s educational and career choices.
  • Heterosexual norms are embedded in the educational system and labour market.
  • Non-heterosexual youth are both expected to be heterosexual and to act in a heterosexual way.
  • Many non-heterosexual youth challenge the heterosexual and gendered expectations that surround them.
  • Non-heterosexual young people have often been (and still are) omitted from educational research.

This article acknowledges the importance of investigating sexuality in terms of young people’s educational and career choices. The author explores the processes of post-compulsory educational choices of non-heterosexual young people in Finland. The author argues that issues of gender, sexuality and social class intertwine in the educational choices and opportunities of young people.

Lehtonen, Jukka. (2010). Gendered Post-Compulsory Educational Choices of Non-Heterosexual Youth. European Educational Research Journal, 9(2), 177-191.

TEACHER EDUCATION

Gender inclusion and horizontal gender segregation: stakeholders strategies and dilemmas in Swedish teacher’ education

Author: Susanne Kreitz-Sandberg (2013)

  • Gender is constantly constructed and reconstructed in teacher education.
  • Teacher educators as well as students’ perspectives on gender are strongly dichotomised.
  • The teacher educators’ strategies were influenced by heteronormative norms.
  • Issues of gender should be further included in syllabuses in the teacher education programmes, course literature and examinations.

This article addresses issues connected to teacher education, higher education and gender in Sweden. The study draws from teacher educators’ perceptions of gender policies and their own professional roles when meeting and interacting with the students. The results reveal that the teacher educators use different strategies and experience different dilemmas in their daily work in teacher educations.

Kreitz-Sandberg, Susanne. (2013). Gender inclusion and horizontal gender segregation: stakeholders strategies and dilemmas in Swedish teacher’ education. Gender and Education, 25(4), 444-465.

Improving Pedagogical Practices through Gender Inclusion: Examples from University Programmes for Teachers in Preschools and Extended Education

Author: Susanne Kreitz-Sandberg (2016)

  • The importance of basic values of gender inclusion in work with gender in higher education.
  • Gender issues can be improved in the teacher training programmes.
  • The importance of improving the knowledge about gender and gender inclusion and developing adequate pedagogical tools.

This article addresses potential improvements in gender equality in preschool teacher training programmes and extended education in Sweden. The study draws from education ethnography and applies quantitative and qualitative text analysis of different educational documents. The author raises the importance of further developing gender inclusion in higher education programmes.

Kreitz-Sandberg, Susanne.  (2016). Improving Pedagogical Practices through Gender Inclusion: Examples from University Programmes for Teachers in Preschools and Extended Education. International Journal for Research on Extended Education, 4(2), 71-91.

Gender Awareness in Finnish Teacher Education: an Impossible Mission?

Author: Elina Lahelma (2011)

  • Some teachers and teacher educators perceive Finland as a country that has already achieved gender equality; therefore, including practices for supporting gender awareness in teacher education may not be implemented.
  • Another obstacle for including practices to support gender awareness in teacher education is that many teachers believe that “being neutral” promotes equality or that equality is promoted through paying attention to assumed gender differences.
  • The fact that gender issues are so deeply entangled in personal lives and subjectivities makes it difficult to challenge hegemonic masculinities and gender inequalities in schools and society.
  • Addressing critical theories such as gender theory is often difficult in teacher education.
  • After taking courses about gender and education, students often report excitement about the courses, deep changes in their world views and wishes that the courses were obligatory for every student.

Promotion of gender equality in and through education has been on the European political agenda for decades but the pace of change has been slow. This article addresses the difficulties and potential in the effort of including practices to support gender awareness in teacher education in Finland.

Lahelma, Elina. (2011). Gender Awareness in Finnish Teacher Education: An Impossible Mission? Education Inquiry, 2(2), 263-276.

Reference List of Selected Articles

Asp-Onsjö, Lisa. & Holm, Ann-Sofie. (2014). Governance by marks—an ethnographic study of school achievements and gender. In Arnesen, Anne-Lise; Lahelma Elina; Lundahl Lisbeth and Öhrn Elisabet (Eds.), Fair and competitive? Critical perspectives on contemporary Nordic schooling. (pp. 61-81). London: The Tufnell Press.

Holm, Ann-Sofie. & Öhrn, Elisabet, Öhrn. (2007). Crossing Boundaries? Complexities and Drawbacks to Gendered Success Stories. In Marie Carlson, Annika Rabo and Fatma Gök (Eds.), Education in ‘Multicultural’ Societies – Turkish and Swedish Perspectives. (pp. 181-195). Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, Transactions, vol. 18.

Holm, Ann-Sofie. (2010). Gender pattern and student agency. Secondary school students’ agency over time. European Educational Research Journal, 9(2), 257-268.

Kreitz-Sandberg, Susanne. (2013). Gender inclusion and horizontal gender segregation: stakeholders strategies and dilemmas in Swedish teacher’ education. Gender and Education, 25(4), 444-465.

Kreitz-Sandberg, Susanne.  (2016). Improving Pedagogical Practices through Gender Inclusion: Examples from University Programmes for Teachers in Preschools and Extended Education. International Journal for Research on Extended Education, 4(2), 71-91.

Lahelma, Elina. (2011). Gender Awareness in Finnish Teacher Education: An Impossible Mission? Education Inquiry, 2(2), 263-276.

Lehtonen, Jukka. (2010). Gendered Post-Compulsory Educational Choices of Non-Heterosexual Youth. European Educational Research Journal, 9(2), 177-191.

Odenbring, Ylva. (2014). Gender, order and discipline in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Childhood, 42(2), 345-356.

Odenbring, Ylva. & Lappalainen,  Sirpa. (2013). In ‘the Educational Twilight Zone’: Gendered Pedagogy and Constructions of the Ideal Pupil in the Transition from Pre-Primary Education to Compulsory Schooling in Finland and Sweden. Nordic Studies in Education, 33(4), 329-343.

Tainio, Liisa. (2012). Gender in Finnish school textbooks for basic education. In Tolonen, Tarja; Palmu, Tarja; Lappalainen, Sirpa; Kurki, Tuuli (Eds.). Cultural practices and transitions in education. 211–225.