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Gender segregation in VET focus of new report

Both the labour markets and the education systems in the Nordic countries are highly gender-segregated.  This is particularly apparent in vocational education and training (VET). NIKK´s report describes the state of knowledge and the education systems across the Nordic countries, and providing examples of existing interventions to break patterns of gender segregation in VET in these countries.

Women and men are found in different courses and study programmes and sectors of the labour market, and also end up in different positions in the hierarchies of both the education systems and working life. This gender segregation has consequences for study and working conditions, pay, and the distribution of power and resources. VET programmes involve many practices where sex and gender have significance, and where gender segregation is particularly apparent. 

Tasked by the Nordic Council of Ministers, NIKK has produced the report “Vocational education and training in the Nordic countries – Knowledge and interventions to combat gender segregation”. The report describes the current state of knowledge and the education systems in the Nordic countries. It also provides examples of existing interventions aiming to break patterns of gender segregation in VET programmes in the Nordic countries. The final part of the report analyses each of its parts and presents recommendations and overall reflections on what needs to be taken into account in future work for change.  

Few interventions focus on gender coding 

In the Nordic countries, interventions to reduce gender imbalances in working life and education are largely implemented as part of overall policy strategies. Some interventions target specific sectors. The report shows that many of these interventions to counter gender segregation aim to encourage the under-represented sex to choose differently. However, few of them focus on the gender coding that exists and is reproduced in VET programmes and in the workplaces associated with them.  

“Gender coding is closely tied to how work is valued. Traditions, tasks and cultures in these occupations and in VET are associated with masculinity or femininity. This does not automatically change when the proportion of women or men in a particular sector changes,” says Angelica Simonsson, PhD in education and senior analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, who wrote the report.  

Many similarities and differences in the Nordic countries’ education systems  

The education systems in the Nordic countries have many fundamental similarities, but also many differences, especially when it comes to the way in which VET programmes are organised. All these education systems have in common that they have always had the fundamental idea that social disparities can be addressed through education. Common to all the Nordic countries is that they have a universal education system where all pupils attend compulsory school together. When pupils are roughly 15-16 years old, they transition to upper secondary school. There, they can choose between a stream that leads to university studies or a VET stream, or a combination of both. One of the major differences between the countries is how strong the divide is between these two streams, and being able to study for entry to university studies for those who choose a VET programme.  

“This is linked in part to the countries’ different ways of dealing with the issue of social inclusion and equity,” continues Angelica Simonsson.  

One of the most striking similarities in VET in the Nordic countries is the numbers of boys and girls studying in different VET areas. The report presents statistics which show great similarities in the areas where boys dominate and where girls dominate, and that boys generally exhibit a greater dominance. At the same time, the subject areas involve different things in the different countries and are therefore not entirely comparable. Overall however, it can be said that there is an almost total dominance of boys in the energy, industry, building and construction sectors. Girls instead dominate in the area of health and social care. In sectors such as service and administration, there is a greater gender balance. 

A more comprehensive focus on norms is needed  

There are several explanatory models for why gender segregation in VET occurs. What is clear is that sex, gender, VET and work are interlinked. The explanations form a complex fabric in which the individual level and societal level interact; in which policy, governance and labour market forces interact; and in which the individual’s choices are constrained and curtailed both directly and indirectly. A focus on individuals alone within the under-represented group in a particular sector appears to be a poor solution to the problem. 

“Instead, a more comprehensive and distributed focus on norms and attitudes is needed, targeting actors and practices at a number of levels in the labour market and in these countries’ education systems,” says Angelica Simonsson.  

An accessible version of the publication(in English) can be found here.

Updated 9 January 2024