Low engagement in adult learning and gender divide in educational choice remain major barriers

The engagement of women and men (aged 15 or older) in formal or non-formal education and training remains low in the EU (17 %)[1]. Nordic countries are clear leaders, with participation rates higher than 30 %, while Bulgaria and Romania have the lowest participation rates (both 9 %).

Several EU countries have seen substantial changes in this metric since 2010: significant increases in participation levels have been registered in France (+ 12 p.p.) and Ireland (+ 5 p.p.), while they fell by more than 5 p.p. in Denmark, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

As overall participation levels are very low in most of the EU, gender differences are essentially non-existent in 16 Member States, and vary from 1 p.p. to 5 p.p. in another 10 EU countries. The only clear exceptions are the Member States with the highest overall participation rates in adult learning – Sweden, Denmark and Finland – where the gender gaps in favour of women are 12 p.p., 7 p.p. and 7 p.p., respectively.

Adult learning gradually stalls with age, heightening the risk of skills mismatches and a premature end to women’s and men’s careers. In 2018, only 15 % of women and 13 % of men aged 25–49 participated in adult learning. By the time people were approaching retirement age, participation rates had dropped to 9 % and 6 % for women and men, respectively.

The European economy loses over 2 % of its potential productivity each year to the mismatch between supply and demand for skills, with the combination of demographic trends and technological change likely to exacerbate the situation (EESC, 2018). Lifelong learning could play an essential role in closing this skills gap.

Gender segregation in education remains a major barrier to gender equality in the EU. In 2017, 43 % of all women at university were studying education, health and welfare, humanities or the arts, with the gender gap in the EU as a whole standing at 22 p.p., unchanged since 2010. This divide is mirrored by gender segregation in the labour market, which determines women’s and men’s earnings, career prospects and working conditions.

The highest gender gaps in enrolment in education, health and welfare, humanities and the arts were registered in Finland and Cyprus (33 p.p. and 27 p.p., respectively), while in 20 countries the gap was greater than 20 p.p. Romania and Bulgaria recorded the lowest gender gaps in the EU, yet these were still very high, at 15 p.p. and 16 p.p., respectively.

However, several EU countries have made significant progress since 2010: the Netherlands, for example, has closed the gap by 9 p.p., while Germany has reduced it by nearly 8 p.p. At the same time, five countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia) all witnessed an increase in the gap of more than 5 p.p.

Although the gap is not directly measured by the Gender Equality Index, there is a significant gender difference among graduates in ICT and STEM subjects. In 2018, women constituted about 28 % of graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction, and only around 20 % of ICT graduates[2]. However, near gender parity was recorded among graduates in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics (54 % women and 46 % men).

Gender differences in STEM subjects in higher education are not explained by academic performance, as girls and boys show similar levels of achievement in science and maths in secondary level education (European Commission, 2019g). Social norms and gendered expectations regarding career choices (often reinforced through educational content and curricula) are the key drivers of gender segregation in higher education (EIGE, 2020a).