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Survey: 25% of Estonian boys think women should stay out of politics

Koalitsioonikõneluste pressikonverents 21. märtsil.
Koalitsioonikõneluste pressikonverents 21. märtsil. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

A quarter of Estonian boys think women should not participate in politics, data from a new survey shows. The gap in social attitudes is widening between girls and boys, researchers say.

While Estonia is extremely proud of its PISA results, less attention has been paid to the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) which looks at eighth graders' – 13-15 year olds – knowledge of society and democracy. The Estonian part of the study was carried out by researchers at Tallinn University.

Researcher Maarja Tinn said the results show Estonian boys' attitudes to gender equality have become significantly more backward since 2016, when the study was last carried out. For example, a quarter of boys think women should stay out of politics, while half believe men are better suited to politics than women.

"We can now see that it was not a small step backward, but a very significant step backward," Tinn said.

Experts are concerned about the results. "This is worrying because when we look at the gaps between boys and girls, it seems as if boys and girls in Estonia live in completely different worlds," Tinn said. 

A graph showing boys and girls attitudes from the 2022 ICCS report. Source: ERR News

She said eighth-grade girls are much more progressive in their views than boys their age.

"In some cases, Estonian girls even outperform Sweden. However, if we look at the boys, they are at the other end of the scale, along with the boys from Serbia and Romania, where the post-Soviet mindset is prevalent," the researcher said.

Previously the study showed a wider gap between schools where the language of instruction differed between Estonian and Russian, but this has now closed.

Mare Oja, adviser in the field of general education at the Ministry of Education and Research, said the issue of gender equality has been in the spotlight in Estonian education for a long time. "It is surprising and worrying that boys are expressing such attitudes and that the gaps between girls' and boys' attitudes are widening," she said.  

Oja said there are many causes as attitudes are formed in different environments and due to many factors. She said the results need to be further analyzed to find out why the changes have occurred.

A graph showing boys and girls attitudes from the 2022 ICCS report. Source: ERR News

"Looking at the survey results internationally, young people's democratic attitudes are more similar to the 2009 survey than to the 2016 survey. In short, the answer could lie in a changed and changing world," Oja said.

Propaganda is aimed at boys

While the study did not look at the causes, they were discussed by the Tallinn University researchers and with colleagues abroad. Maarja Tinn said the reasons can be found in other similar studies. 

"When we talk about extreme propaganda aimed at children and young people, including right-wing populist propaganda, it is almost exclusively aimed at boys. The girl has no place as a subject in this propaganda. She is simply an object, about whom, of course, there is a lot of talk in the propaganda about her role and place, but it is not directed at them as human beings. This is because such views are not inclusive of women, but they are more concerned with putting women in their place," explained Tinn.

On the other hand, it is also easier to approach boys, for example in chatrooms. For example, conversations can start with games and then other topics dropped into the conversation.

"In the same way, the likes of Andrew Tate are popular on Tiktok and we have influencers in Estonia who see no problem posing with them," Tinn gave an example.

Mare Oja said treating girls and boys equally in education is important, but differences in ability are also taken into account. This is accompanied by other issues, such as boys dropping out of school in higher numbers than girls, different education choices, women's level of higher education and the pay gap. Ensuring equal opportunities has been a priority for a long time, she said.

However, OECD 2022 report found that while great progress has been made in the field of gender equality in Estonia, discriminatory teaching practices still exist. This includes activities such as wood and metal work for men, but cooking, sewing and knitting classes for girls. 

The national curricula approved in 2023 do not allow for separate teaching of boys and girls technology subjects. The report's recommendation to integrate gender equality into the curriculum has been fulfilled, at least on paper.

Knowledge is good

Young Estonians did well in their knowledge of society which looked at their understanding of democratic processes and how they work.

But it also showed civic participation was low. This was assessed by asking if the teenagers planned to participate in elections, join a political party, or participate in political life in other ways. Additionally, social issues were discussed.

"When we talk about planned political participation, and the extent to which we can scientifically predict what the same child's participation and behavior will be in 10 years' time, we see that political participation is not driven by students with higher levels of knowledge," Tinn said.

Generally, there is a relationship between better knowledge and participation. If a person has a better knowledge of society, they participate in civic life more than average as a young citizen, and this tends to increase in the future. But this is not observed in Estonia.

"In Estonia, interest in entering or participating in politics was higher in Russian language schools and among boys with lower levels of knowledge," said Tinn. 

She said it is a problem that students and girls with better knowledge are less inclined to participate in civic life, adding research shows women in the public sphere more likely to face criticism and attack on social media.

"This, in turn, creates the effect of self-censorship, so that the woman [thinks she] is better off not saying anything or, if she does, doing so in a small, safe environment," Tinn explained.

Social studies classes at school can play a big role in shaping attitudes to these issues, but they do not start until ninth grade in Estonia.

"The assumption is still that the student will wait until the ninth grade, when social studies is finally on the syllabus, and then they can ask their questions," Tinn said. Teachers may not have time to discuss such topics in other classes either, because the subject classes are overloaded.

The ministry's Mare Oja said civic education is compulsory and it is how students understand the state. It is included across the curriculum. "This cannot be the responsibility of social studies alone, but must take place in all subjects, in the school environment and through the school curriculum," she said.

A total of 3,961 students from 254 Estonian schools participated in the ICCS 2022 survey. Data was also collected from teachers and school principals. Estonia has participated in the international survey since 1999. 

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Editor: Helen Wright

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