A three-year research project was launched recently in Finland to reduce gender bias, harassment and discrimination in the country's sports and fitness circles. One of the researchers involved in the project, Jyväskylä University lecturer and sport psychologist Marja Kokkonen, has started by taking a critical look at physical education classes in Finland's schools.
"Few grounds are presented for why in the year 2018 in Finland we are still teaching PE separately to boys and girls," she says.
She says that the justifications that she has heard are largely based on old-fashioned, stereotypical notions of the supposed different physicality of girls and boys, along with similar ideas about their diverging natures and personality traits.
"For example, that boys are more physical and brash and aren't rhythmically coordinated," she says.
Of course none of this is backed up with any kind of scientific proof. In fact, it is mostly questionnaires of the youth themselves that are used to back up the practice in Finland. Kokkonen says that while young people's opinions are indeed important, it shouldn't be the deciding factor.
"If I went to a seventh-grade PE class and asked them if they would like to start co-ed classes with the boys, the majority would naturally say 'no'," she argues.
She says that this is largely a result of conditioning in Finnish children, as the majority of schools start separating their PE classes into boy and girl groups starting in third grade.
Reinforcing gender stereotypes from a young age
Sports psychologist Marja Kokkonen holds a PhD in psychology and a master's degree in sport sciences. She specialises in developmental and sports psychology in her work for the University of Jyväskylä health sciences faculty.
She says separating kids this young reinforces old-fashioned assumptions about boys being the stronger, taller, bolder and more aggressive sex – not to mention more prone to enjoy contact sports. Meanwhile, girls are given the impression that they are more suited to dance because they are more flexible, have a better sense of rhythm and are more aesthetically fluid in their movements.
She says there are many other stereotypes about boys and girls in school environments, but you don't see such gender segregation in any other classes.
"Like the idea that girls have better heads for language, and boys are more mathematically inclined," she gives as an example.
She also brings up the conundrum presented by children who don't feel comfortable in their gender: transgender, genderqueer or non-binary school kids. She says children like this are put in a very uncomfortable position under the current system, which forces them to choose a group that they may not feel suits their gender identity.
But the excuse from defenders of the practice that riles Kokkonen the most is the one that says that otherwise girls will be trampled by the rough boys in PE.
"This is a bit of a pathetic rationale: that half of the class would be exposed to a safety risk! The school and its teachers are responsible for ensuring the safety of everyone there. Something is seriously wrong if someone in a school is ever really in danger. After all, the same logic could apply to chemistry experiments," she says.
Kokkonen says that Finland's outdated thinking in this area also means it is losing out on enjoying the fruits of countless numbers of young people reaching their true potential. There are hundreds of boys out there who are talented dancers and tons of girls who are exceptionally gifted at ball sports, she says.