Swedish Schools and Gender Equality in the 1970s

By Hedlin, Maria | International Education Studies, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Swedish Schools and Gender Equality in the 1970s


Hedlin, Maria, International Education Studies


Abstract

In Sweden, as in many countries before Sweden, boys' academic achievements are getting considerable attention as the big gender issue. The Swedish gender equality policy that was put on the agenda in the 1970s is now associated with extreme discussions. This study aims to explore how gender equality was discussed in the 1970s, in connection with work on a forthcoming curriculum. The empirical material examined consists of the preparatory work for the Swedish comprehensive school National Curriculum, LGR 80 and the publication Lärartidningen [Teachers' Journal]. In the material, the gender inequality problem was first and foremost discussed in terms of sex-role values that led to sex-linked choices of education and jobs. Hopes that girls would turn to technical education and technical career choices were highly connected to the issue of equality between the sexes. Attention was occasionally drawn to women's second-rate position in society, but mainly the problem of gender inequality was considered to be pupils' attitudes rather than structures and strong cultural norms. Through information and sex-mixed classes the problem would be solved. Thus, in the material examined the gender discussions were rather superficial.

Keywords: gender equality, femininities, masculinities, compulsory school, educational policy

1. Introduction

Sweden has a reputation as being world-leading on gender equality (Pringle, 2009; Towns, 2002; Weiner, 2005). Recently, however, the focus in gender equality policy has shifted. In September 2012, Nyamko Sabuni, Minister for Gender Equality and Deputy Minister for Education, announced that girls and women have been at the center of attention for a long time, and now it is time to put the focus on boys and men (Utbildningsdepartementet, 2012). One issue that needs attention from a gender equality perspective is boys' lower academic achievement compared to girls', the minister claimed. To understand this shift, I will go back to the Swedish gender equality discussions of the 1970s.

Internationally the focus on boys is well known. The discourse of "successful girls versus failing boys" started in Britain in the 1990s and has spread across the Western world (Foster, Kimmel, & Skelton 2001; Zyngier, 2009). This view has been criticized for being based on simplistic notions on gender and learning as well as for reinforcing gender stereotypes (Martino & Berill, 2003). Nevertheless this travelling discourse has been repeated in one country after another; but compared with other countries, it arrived late in Sweden. At the millennium shift the Swedish researcher Öhrn (2000) noted that Sweden was not affected by the "moral panic" going on elsewhere about boys' underachievement. Although Swedish girls as a group got higher grades than boys as a group, this had not caused much distress. A suggested explanation was that Swedish girls had performed better than boys for decades and the pattern therefore was well known. Girls' academic performance did not give them a privileged position, neither on the labour market nor in society as a whole. Also girls did often not use their good grades to apply for high status education (Elgqvist Saltzman, 1992). A few years later, however, the discussions had taken a different turn. The attention when discussing gender issues was turned to boys' academic performance (Arnesen, Lahelma, & Öhrn, 2008). In 2012, with the above-mentioned announcement by the Minister, a new course clearly entered in the Swedish gender equality policy.

The gender policy that Sweden is so famous for was established in the mid-1970s. Florin and Nilsson (1999) have studied how gender issues were promoted by journalists, scholars, politicians and officials who often collaborated. Thanks to a few dedicated pioneers, radical gender equality goals for schools were stated as early as the national curriculum of 1969 (Nilsson, 2008). When the nine-year comprehensive school system was introduced in 1962, men as breadwinners and women as homemakers was still a strong ideal, but in 1969, by the comprehensive school's first reform, this ideal was to be questioned (Baude, 1979; LGR 69). …

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