Higher Education

In one country, women now outnumber men in college by two to one

It’s only the most extreme example of a worldwide trend that includes the U.S.

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more women than men in college

The bar at the University of Iceland, a campus where women outnumber men by two to one.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Happy hour at the bar at the University of Iceland gets under way at 4 p.m. on Thursdays, unofficial end of the week on campuses everywhere.

Like their counterparts all over the world, most of the students here avoid taking classes that are scheduled to meet on Fridays, giving themselves a head start on their weekends.

But that’s not what’s most conspicuous about this scene.

It’s how overwhelmingly the women in the bar outnumber the men, a visible manifestation of a momentous trend at whose leading edge is Iceland.

The number of women in college around the globe has decisively overtaken the number of men. That includes in almost all of the 36 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, and in 39 of 47 countries of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, which extends to central and western Asia.

And nowhere is the divide as lopsided as in Iceland, where there are now two women in college for every man — the biggest imbalance in the OECD.

The reasons for this, its implications and the thorniness of dealing with it make this sparsely populated nation a laboratory for the countries heading in the same direction — including the United States, where the number of women in higher education has also caught up to and surpassed the number of men.

Fifty years ago, men were 58 percent of American college students. Today, 56 percent are women, U.S. Department of Education estimates show. This year, for the first time, the share of college-educated women in the American workforce passed the share of college-educated men, according to the Pew Research Center.

It’s not just that more women opt for college. It’s that fewer men do, affecting their opportunities and lifetime earnings, among other things.

Related: The students disappearing fastest from American campuses? Middle-class ones

“It’s a crazy cycle,” said Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who focuses on college access and gender. “We know that when you have a college education, there are good outcomes with health. You’re more likely to live longer. It matters for employment stability and civic engagement. You’re less likely to rely on social services.”

While still under a very low 3 percent, unemployment for men in Iceland is slightly higher than it is for women, the government agency Statistics Iceland reports.

Even in Iceland, however, the shrinking number of men in higher education has until recently attracted scant attention, said Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, rector of the University of Akureyri in northern Iceland, 77 percent of whose 2,389 undergraduates are women.

“We are just now waking up and understanding that this is a problem,” said Guðmundsson, who has been outspoken about the topic. “The world is waking up to it.”

Yet some people still ask him why they should be concerned, Guðmundsson said.

“It is of concern for the exact reason that we had concern 30 years ago about women not being represented in higher education in a fair way, or in the United States about ethnic groups and people of different backgrounds” not going to college, he said he tells them.

“If you’re a young male able to get a blue-collar type of a job with a decent wage [and not go to college], that means physical labor. What are you going to do when you’re 50? What will be your opportunities then? This could create a problem for a society at a greater scale.”

The trend also complicates efforts to fill jobs that require a college education. In the U.S., it’s worsening an already historic decline in university enrollment.

Related: Colleges provide misleading information about their costs

more women than men in college

Steinunn Gestsdóttir, vice rector at the University of Iceland. “It’s not a topic very high on the agenda. It’s not being discussed in the media,” she says of women outnumbering men in college. “But policymakers are worried about this trend.”

“It’s not a topic very high on the agenda. It’s not being discussed in the media,” said Steinunn Gestsdóttir, vice rector at the University of Iceland. “But policymakers are worried about this trend.”

Though there are slightly more men in Iceland than women, women earn more undergraduate and graduate degrees, including Ph.D.s, according to the country’s Directorate of Equality. Fifty-nine percent of women in and around Reykjavik have completed college, compared to 45 percent of men; outside the capital, the ratio is 40 percent to 19 percent.

The many causes of this begin in primary and secondary grades, where research shows that girls are earlier to apply themselves, while boys are more likely to drop out, impatient to begin earning money and unwilling to spend further years in school.

Girls score higher than boys by the fourth grade in reading in the U.S., and more boys than girls drop out of high school. In Iceland, more than 29 percent of boys drop out of high school, compared to 21 percent of girls.

“The boys want to have a car but the girls want to think about their future,” said Agnes Orradóttir, a University of Iceland undergraduate.

There’s a similar dynamic in the United States, said Huerta.

“You have some teachers and counselors in rural and urban environments discouraging young men from going on to higher education — ‘You’re not college material, you should just go work,’ ” he said. “You can see that in L.A., and you can see that in rural Nebraska, where I can go make a little above minimum wage and have some money in my pocket, and I’m doing better than my buddy in college who isn’t making anything yet and who has student loans.

Related: Luxury private student housing further divides rich and poor on campuses

Another reason is that, when the mismatch went the other way, the focus on pushing students into college was on girls. Even now, there are programs to nudge more women into traditionally male-dominated fields such as engineering and computer science, which threaten to push the gender ratio even further out of whack.

more women than men in college

Katrín Ólafsdóttir, an economist at the University of Reykjavik who studies gender inequality. “Women were told the reason you don’t get paid the same is you don’t have the education. So they went to university. Everyone thought the men would be fine.”

“Women were told the reason you don’t get paid the same is you don’t have the education. So they went to university,” said Katrín Ólafsdóttir, an economist at the University of Reykjavik who studies gender inequality. “Everyone thought the men would be fine.”

Male high school graduates have ample opportunities in Iceland to take decent-paying jobs in major industries including fishing and in the construction that seems to be under way everywhere, while their female classmates choose professions such as nursing that require further education.

This division by gender in many professions is unusually pronounced in Iceland, known as a society that values equality, with a female prime minister, a law requiring employers to certify that they pay their male and female workers equally and a rule that at least 40 percent of corporate board members must be women.

While men still predominate in engineering and computer science, for example, they won’t go into nursing; 98 percent of nurses here are women, at a time when the need for nurses is rising and the Icelandic Nurses’ Association says the number of new nurses graduating from colleges has fallen well below the number heading toward retirement.

A shortage like this shows how tricky it can be to close even the widest gap by offering a form of affirmative action to men. When the nurses’ association announced last year that it would reimburse university registration fees for men who become nurses — about $605 a year, which is what students in Iceland pay for college — there were protests from women who questioned being excluded from getting the same incentive.

Related: Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

more women than men in college

Sandra Björg Ernudóttir, right, with friend Anna Karen, in the University of Iceland campus bar. “It’s not fair” to give financial incentives to get more men to go to college, she says.

“Why should I have to pay more [than a man]?” asked one University of Iceland student, Claudia Magnússon. “It’s not fair,” said another, Sandra Björg Ernudóttir, who’s studying ethnology. “Why don’t they do the same thing in the opposite direction?”

Even in the name of leveling the playing field, and especially in Iceland, “It is very sensitive when you favor one gender over the other,” Ólafsdóttir said over coffee in Reykjavik’s financial district.

This is not only an issue in Iceland. Women in China protested when universities there made it harder for them to opt for certain majors in which they had begun to outnumber men.

To eliminate what the government calls “extreme gender imbalance,” universities in Scotland are working toward a 2030 target to make sure that no discipline has more than three-quarters of its students of one gender.

Incentives to get more men into college continue to be discussed in Iceland, but only informally, said Gestsdóttir.

more women than men in college

Inside a classroom at the University of Iceland, a campus where women outnumber men by two to one.

“It’s tricky,” she said. “Iceland so highly values gender equality that I think it would be harder to have a policy that’s just for one [gender]. It’s not about men and women. It’s about equal access for everyone. No one’s saying we’re going to make it easier for men to go to university.”

Figuring out some other way to get them there, however, is “incredibly important,” said Ólafsdóttir, the previous head of forecasting for the National Economic Institute.

And not just for nursing. There are also shortages of teachers, another job for which few men apply; at the University of Iceland, 91 percent of teaching students are women.

The teachers’ union, too, has tried to attract more men, but in this field male role models may make the biggest difference. When the rock band that competed for Iceland in (and reached the finals of) the Eurovision song contest in 2014 included two male preschool teachers — one, Haraldur Gíslason, now the president of the Preschool Teachers Association — there was a brief increase in the number of men who went into teaching.

Experts say small steps like this may be a way to overcome the stubborn stereotypes that channel men into some roles and women into others.

Another possible solution is the division by sex of some Icelandic preschools during part of the day in what is called the Hjalli model, to teach girls to be more assertive and boys to be more sensitive.

In fact, attitudes toward work have started changing — but more among women than men. At the University of Iceland, more women have begun to enter male-dominated disciplines such as electrical engineering.

Related: College students are increasingly forgoing summers off to save money, stay on track

more women than men in college

Ragnar Thór Snaeland is studying at the University of Iceland toward a law degree. He says he enrolled there because his parents and most of the other parents in the suburb of Reykjavik where he grew up had gone to college and expected him to do so as well.

“What isn’t happening is the other trend in the female-dominated departments,” Gestsdóttir said. “We’re not seeing men going into women-dominated subjects at the same rate. This is a very slow process.”

To discourage dropouts, the length of high school was shortened from four years to three, though the effect of this has been mixed. Many students and some observers say that schools have simply crammed the same amount of teaching into less time, alienating already disaffected students.

Those students are more often boys, said Ragnar Thór Snaeland, an undergraduate studying toward an eventual law degree at the University of Iceland; he said he enrolled there because his parents, like most of the other parents in the suburb of Reykjavik where he grew up, had gone to college and expected him to go as well.

“In the countryside or maybe places in eastern Iceland, I don’t know if they have the same pressure there,” said Snaeland as he took a study break on the small campus of tightly clustered and interconnected buildings.

Shortening high school, he said, “was kind of idiotic. It increases the pressure, and people maybe stop playing sports, studying music or other things they’re doing outside of school. They crunch all the studies into these three years. So it’s just more pressure and less time.”

Said Snaeland: “I think girls can deal with that better than boys. In my school, girls were always more alert, they didn’t do crazy things, they were always focused on the studying. Guys have more energy at that age.”

Related: Already stretched grad students rebel against rising and often surreptitious fees

more women than men in college

Agnes Orradóttir, left, a University of Iceland undergraduate, with friend Krista Héðinsdóttir. “The boys want to have a car but the girls want to think about their future,” Orradóttir says.

And fewer of them have ended up here, at this university that is mostly women. The student council president is a woman. So are the chairs of all nine of its committees.

In her English major, there’s one man among 25 women, Magnússon said. “We don’t even hear from him.”

“It’s more quiet” without men, joked another student, Agnes Orradóttir.

“They tone down when there are more women,” said Ernudóttir, over nachos she was sharing with a friend back at the campus bar.

There’s no one way to bring the ratio back into balance, Guðmundsson said.

“Some of it will be positive discrimination. Some will simply be messaging. Some will be about thinking about jobs in a new way so both genders will see it in a new way,” he said.

“We’re still just trying to understand the solutions. And I guess that’s the same for the rest of the world.”

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Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education… See Archive

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