FINLAND: Women dominate the campus

It is no surprise that more women than men study in Finland's universities given they have been in the majority for nearly 30 years. What differs from the pattern in many countries is that the female dominance has not increased much over the years and is quite modest when compared with the considerable female over-representation in some countries. In 2008, women made up 53% of all university enrolments in Finland, up from 50% in 1981. But these averages conceal significant discipline-based polarisations.

In 1981, Finnish universities had nearly 86,000 enrolled students and slightly more than half were women. In 2008, there were 164,000, of whom 88,000 were women. As happens elsewhere, women are greatly over-represented in some fields of study: in 1981 and 2008, more than two-thirds of students enrolled in dentistry, humanities, pharmacy, psychology, education, and veterinary medicine were women.

The female proportion increased in all of these disciplines except pharmacy (down from 83% in 1981 to 77% in 2008) but women comprised a whopping 91% of all enrolments in veterinary medicine in 2008, up from 72% in 1981.

In 2008, women made up between half and two-thirds of enrolments in a number of other areas, including agriculture (58%), theology (59%), medicine (63%) and social sciences (66%). In 1981, they were under-represented in agriculture, theology, law, economics, natural sciences and engineering but by 2008 the under-representation was only in economics (45%), natural sciences (44%) and engineering (21%) whereas in 1981 the last ratio was only 15%.

This discipline-based pattern of extremes also affects the gender distribution between universities. Women tend to make up 20-30% of the total enrolment at the relatively few universities offering engineering. Helsinki University of Technology (the major partner in the new Aalto University), Tampere University of Technology and Lappeenranta University of Technology are in this situation but most of the larger universities (Helsinki, Turku, Tampere and Jyväskylä) do not teach engineering and have enrolments comprising 63-65% women.

With the female dominance in all but a few disciplines, it might seem strange their overall presence in 2008 was only 53% although two factors are involved: first, the areas with more men than women tend to be large fields of education so enrolments in economics, natural sciences and engineering comprise 47% of the total.

With the exception of humanities, social sciences and education (representing 34% of all enrolments), women's extreme predominance occurs in fairly small fields.

The second is that Finland has had a binary system of higher education since the early 1990s. In 2008, polytechnics had 141,000 enrolled students, of whom 56% were women. Replicating the university pattern, men dominated in engineering (84%) and science (73%) but were considerably outnumbered by women in other disciplines.

Overall, women represented 54.5% of higher education enrolments in 2008 and therefore outnumber men although their majority is modest compared with some countries.

* Dr Ian Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News. An Australian scholar currently based in Finland, he is editor of the Australian Universities' Review.