University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Gender numbers lopsided and skewed in Danish higher education. This is a big issue

Education — It is »crazy« how gender-skewed the Danish education system is. And this has serious consequences, both for higher education and for society. This is according to several organisations who now all call for action.

You don’t have to look too deeply at this year’s admission figures in higher education programmes to realise that women and men choose very differently. In many places, the genders lump together in specific subject areas. Men dominate the IT degree programmes and technical subjects, women are in the majority of  healthcare and teaching programmes.

At the University of Copenhagen, 77.6 per cent of students admitted to the psychology programme were women, and women make up more than 89 per cent of admitted students in veterinary medicine. Meanwhile, 78.6 per cent of the computer science economics programme are men.

And these are not isolated cases.

»It’s crazy – really, really crazy – how gendered everything is,« says Mads Eriksen, head of education and research policy at the Danish Chamber of Commerce.

Is this also a problem for society? Yes, according to Mads Eriksen, and for several reasons:

The first is about the Danish business members who the Danish Chamber of Commerce represent. The companies that really need more qualified manpower are all in areas that attract one gender more than the other, such as men from IT programmes and economics courses.

It costs society, in other words, to have women’s and men’s subjects, and many talents go to waste when applicants navigate towards their own genders to this extent.

»All the places where we need manpower, are male or female subjects. I have not been able to see anywhere where this is not the case, regardless of whether you are looking at vocational training programmes, professional degree programmes or university degree programmes,« says Mads Eriksen.

Minus 9,000 men

For many years, the debate has revolved around the shortage of women in natural science subjects and in IT programmes. But there are also imbalances in the opposite direction. Real imbalances.

This is not only true for prestigious study programmes such as medicine and psychology, where women predominate. Men, in fact, lag behind women in higher education programmes in general. 9,000 more women than men were offered a place at Danish universities this year, and at the University of Copenhagen, almost 62 per cent of all students enrolled are women.

This is not a new trend. A review of the numbers from the Ministry for Higher Education and Science indicates that women have dominated admissions since the mid-1990s.

It’s crazy – really, really crazy – how gendered everything is.

Mads Eriksen, Head of Education and Research Policy, Danish Chamber of Commerce

»It is remarkable how few people actually talk about the fact that there are twice as many men as women who do not get any education at all. There is simply something in our education system that has men doing much worse than women,« says Mads Eriksen.

This is a problem for the men without an education who, statistically speaking, face more difficult lives, both socially and in terms of their health. This is also a problem for society, because people who could contribute to society, end up drawing on public coffers.

That is why it is not enough to combat the shortage of women in IT and science study programmes. There is a need for an effort to make study programmes as gender-neutral as possible, across the board, according to Mads Eriksen.

»We have to ask: Why is our education system so gendered? If we start there, we can solve the problem of too few female engineers, and we can learn more about how we can activate more men and get more of them into, say, healthcare and social programmes.«

Imbalances are always a problem

The Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM) agrees with the Danish Chamber of Commerce.

Chairman of DM Camilla Gregersen says that gender imbalances are always problematic. And she rejects the idea that gender at a biological level determines what we prefer – whether it is studying psychology or actuarial mathematics, baking cakes or repairing cars.

»It needs to be both motivation and suitability that informs these choices, not gender. There is a need for a wider effort to ensure that we do not miss out on talent,« she says.

»You often only focus on getting more women STEM-subjects, but we also need to look at some of the humanities subjects that men avoid. We must look at this holistically rather than just look at individual subjects. In this way we can answer the question: Why on earth are our education choices so gendered? Part of this is that all courses should be accorded equal respect and value.«

It’s too easy to just cop out because it’s such a complex cultural problem.

Camilla Gregersen, Chairman, Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM)

Stina Vrang Elias, director of the think tank DEA, says something similar.

When there is a shortage of a gender within a subject area, it automatically has negative consequences, she explains. This applies both to study environments where one gender is significantly underrepresented, and to the labour market, where men and women tend to specialise in different directions.

She mentions that there is a risk that too few medical graduates become surgeons or conduct research in specific areas, and patients may find it difficult to choose either male or female psychologists and doctors. This is a point that Mads Eriksen also emphasises, especially because men already hesitate to seek treatment for both psychological and physical ailments.

»No matter whether it is women or it is men that cluster together it is a big problem, because we need both genders on all study programmes. We need all types of diversity, not least gender diversity, for a strong academic environment, because it helps to bring in more perspectives. We also know that diversity has a positive impact on the working environment and innovation. We can only achieve this if there is diversity on the study programmes,« says Stina Vrang Elias.

»It’s good to do something on the basis of what we know. I would sit down and look at where we have the gender-imbalanced study programmes, and what we can do about it in the different places. Because it will be different what works from subject area to subject area.«

Educational institutions are let off the hook

Stina Vrang Elias says that this is a problem that you can actually try to fix, also at the institutions of education. You can see this, when, say, the IT University succeeds in recruiting more women to male-dominated courses in software development, and when university colleges lure more men to the nursing programme. Results that stem from targeted initiatives.


Camilla Gregersen says that the gender-imbalanced education system is part of a larger sorting process in society, where girls and boys are met by certain ideas and expectations. »Do you want to go out and fix the car with your dad?« the son hears. »Would you like to bake a cake with your mum?« the daughter hears.

It is a mistake, however, to believe that the challenge is so insurmountable that educational institutions can’t make any difference.

»It’s too easy to just cop out because it’s such a complex cultural problem. You have to trawl through all the practices that help create the unequal access,« says Camilla Gregersen.

No matter whether it is women or men that are clustering together it is a big problem, because we need both genders on all study programmes.

Stina Vrang Elias, Director, DEA

It can be anything from the words and images you use when you present courses for prospective students – on websites, in presentations and on posters – to what narratives the students are introduced to in primary and secondary schools. Gregersen mentions, as an example, that girls in upper primary school have just as good, in some areas better, IT skills than boys. But the girls still believe they are inferior in technology than the boys are.

This is a clear example of how we need to take a stand against these »crazy and inhibiting ideas,« she says.

Mads Eriksen also says that the root of the problem is to be found a long time before the students apply to university. But he insists that educational institutions, including the University of Copenhagen, have an obligation to fight the problem and ensure that subjects appeal to both genders.

On popular study programmes like Psychology and Medicine, it might be necessary to study how the Danish quota 2 admissions model is set up. This is due to the fact that women generally get higher grades in upper secondary school than men, and therefore, overall, have a better chance of gaining access to studies with high required grade averages. Only two of the eleven degree programmes with the highest admission requirements at the University of Copenhagen have registered majorities of men this year.

Stina Vrang Elias suggests that some degree programmes should introduce larger quota-2 intake numbers.

According to both the think tank DEA and the Danish Chamber of Commerce however, the first step should be to identify what the data uncovers:

»It’s a long haul where you have to try to find out what the causes of this actually are. A nurse can easily be a man in other countries,« says Mads Eriksen.

»I would like to call for more research projects on this, so we can learn more about why the Danish education system is so gender-imbalanced.«