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This page was published on 30/06/2010
Published: 30/06/2010

   Science in society

Last Update: 30-06-2010  
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Commission study highlights gender inequalities in education

Most European countries have policies to tackle gender inequalities in education, but research published by the European Commission shows that across the EU gender differences continue to exist in the studies chosen by girls and boys and the results obtained by students during their education. The study was based on work carried out by the Eurydice ('Information on education systems and policies in Europe') network, which collected and analysed data on education systems in 29 countries, namely all 27 EU Member States, with the exception of Bulgaria, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Differences between boys and girls are still strong © Shutterstock
Differences between boys and girls are still strong
© Shutterstock

With a few exceptions, all European countries have, or plan to have, gender equality policies in education. As well as challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes, these policies aim to enhance the representation of women in decision-making bodies, counter gender-based attainment patterns and combat gender-based harassment in schools.

However, the study noted that additional support from the EU could even out continuing discrepancies — girls generally obtain higher grades and higher pass rates in school leaving examinations than boys, while boys are more likely to drop out of school or repeat school years. Boys are also more likely to be poor performers in reading whereas girls are more likely to be low achievers in mathematics.

Schools in Europe 'today are far from using all potential means to eradicate traditional gender roles', according to the study. 'What boys and girls can and should do in their future professional (and personal) lives is still very much shaped by traditional concepts of gender roles.'

Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner responsible for Education, agreed that changes in society and education in recent decades meant that gender policies needed to evolve along similar lines.

'The relationship between gender and educational attainment has changed significantly over the past 50 years and differences now take more complex forms,' Commissioner Vassiliou commented. 'Schools are overwhelmingly staffed by women, but education systems are managed by men. Most graduates are female and most school drop-outs are boys. We need to base gender equality policies on these realities.'

Indeed, the study found that only a few countries address boys' underachievement as a policy priority, while only some countries have special programmes for improving boys' reading skills and girls' achievement in mathematics and science. Researchers also highlighted that government initiatives that aim to inform parents about gender equality issues and involve them more closely in promoting gender equality in education are rare in the EU.

Researchers added that 'socioeconomic status remains the most important factor explaining student achievement; thus it is important to consider family background alongside gender when supporting children who are under-achieving'.

In general, the study showed that girls tended to receive more attention than boys, in particular where vocational studies were concerned. 'Although interesting individual initiatives and projects exist, overall national strategies to combat gender stereotypes in career choices and initiatives aimed at boys are lacking,' the study found.

Gender-sensitive vocational guidance, which is currently only available in half of European countries, is more often targeted at girls than boys and usually aims to encourage girls to choose technology and natural science careers. Likewise, around two thirds of EU countries have gender equality policies in higher education, but almost all these policies and projects target only females, according to the researchers.

Policies aimed at removing gender inequalities in higher education tend to target females to increase their numbers in engineering and science, and to boost their presence among teaching staff. The fact that the proportion of women among teaching staff in higher education institutions declines with every step on the academic career ladder has prompted about a third of the countries to implement policies to address this problem, noted the study.

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Eurydice network
EU Education and Training
'European study shows when teachers like science, students do too'

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