Opinion: Why Sweden should care about boys falling behind in school

Opinion: Why Sweden should care about boys falling behind in school
Why are boys underperforming? Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
Sweden needs to act now to stop a growing gender gap in education, argues Stockholm University researcher Erik Cardelús in this opinion piece.

A new school year has begun and for hundreds of thousands of students it will be the last one before they run out through the school doors and into adulthood. The obvious follow-up question is: To whom does the future belong the most, and to whom does it belong the least?

The simple answer is that the future belongs mostly to young women, especially if you look at their educational successes. Because more than 60 percent of all university students are women and 47 percent of all women have an academic degree in higher education, compared to 36 percent of men. This applies not only to traditionally female fields of education such as healthcare, school and social care, but also in prestigious domains such as law, medicine and economics degrees.

As many as 58 percent of recently admitted law students are women, 55 percent of doctors and 53 percent of economists. Among student teachers it is even more apparent: more than 90 percent of special needs and pre-school teachers are women, compared to 77 percent of elementary school teachers and 52 percent of specialist subject teachers. Additionally, one fourth of all young boys lack basic reading literacy, which greatly reduces their opportunities on the labour market and in society.

The trend began in the mid-90s and seems to continue. The situtation is similar around the world, although it is most obvious here in the Nordics. This may seem paradoxical because equality is considered so strong here, with a lot of resources and a lot of work on gender issues. The question is then: How should we think about gender equality? Should we be pleased to see young women achieving success and accept the situation, or should we invest more in young boys to ensure they too reach their full potential in school?

No matter how we look at it, we know that low education levels and education failures rarely lead to anything good. Neither the individual nor society on the whole benefit from a certain category of people falling behind, especially when our knowledge-based society requires high education levels and lifelong learning. Research also shows that highly educated people not only earn more, but are also more satisfied with their lives and are healthier. In addition, it is easier for them to find a partner and make relationships last.

It is a problem that we now risk getting large numbers of young low-skilled men with slim opportunities on the labour market. Especially because this group is a recruitment source for various socially destructive forces on the outside of society: criminal gangs, extremist organizations and polarizing political movements. These groups are also already dominated by men. This is a threat to society, with increasing anger and bitterness towards the established society and that which is perceived as politically correct. We therefore risk seeing more of threats and hate in society.

Based on this, it is time to discuss the way the school system operates in a critical and more in-depth way, in particular when it comes to gender. What causes boys to fail and perform so poorly when girls do not? And what can schools and society do to get a grip on the situation? New ideas and action are greatly needed.

A first measure would be to address the problem more clearly and broadly in teacher training and in debates in school and society. Another measure would be to offer schools a bonus if they manage to recruit and maintain a gender balanced staff force. Salaries are obviously important, because higher public sector wages lead to a broader range of applicants, which includes gender, but also ethnicity and social class.

Finally, everyone in society, but especially men in the public sphere, have to emphasize more than they do today that education and training is the best route to a good life, that few can become Zlatan but everyone can take advantage of the opportunity to study.

The successes of young women in education are of course positive, but neither society nor its citizens benefit from young boys falling behind. Because deep down education is about developing the potential of everyone, which is a key factor to prosperity and welfare.

This is a translation of an opinion piece first published by Göteborgs-posten. Erik Cardelús researches language didactics at Stockholm University.