Simple as it is: There will be no male participants if the course selection does not match with their interests. / Photo: ALice Achterhof / Unsplash (

Men wanted: How to ensure gender balance in adult education?

Toolkit. Only about one quarter of all participants in folk high schools are men in Finland. Men are also underrepresented in volunteer groups. To attract more men into adult education and volunteer activities, clever and targeted marketing strategies are not enough. Adult education providers need to critically consider what they offer and what do men want.


What do men want?

To find out what are the most popular activities amongst male participants in adult education in Finland, Souli magazine made a little poll in Finnish folk high schools. Two themes arose above others: Finnish men seem to seek staying in good shape and to do hands-on activities. All-male fitness classes and traditional handicrafts, such as woodcraft and forging workshops, draw men across the country.

In language courses and music classes the gender equality of the attendees is somewhat more balanced than average.

Still, women make up to two thirds of all participants.

The lack of men has led to a strategy of offering all-male classes from fitness to yoga. These have been seen as a chance for men to take a step and bond with each other. Many have turned out to be successful.

What do you offer?

However, organising an all-male fitness class does not ensure a full course even though launching a similar course for women would result in a long waiting list. Offering courses according to the interests of potential participants is, after all, the most important factor. Do the course selection of folk high schools match with men’s interests?

Are men supposed to participate in a zumba class? Here we come to the question, what is the modern image of men.

Jyri Manninen, Professor in adult education, argues that the ultimate reason for the lack of men is that course selection is too narrow. He notes that most teachers are women, as well as those who plan the courses. Adult education centres should hire men as teachers and planners, Manninen suggests. A male teacher may also encourage men to participate.

Group motivates

Whether it is going to pick mushrooms together, learning to manage more ambitious cooking than heating lasagna in a microwave, or discussing the image of a modern man in literature, men are more motivated to do it in a group. This was the valuable notion of the Finnish Miessakit Association: group activities draw men to come together.

The association was established to support the mental, psychological and social growth of men. It organises various activities and discussions in only for men groups. The association now organises a wide range of activities in a relaxed group atmosphere across the country.

According to a typical stereotype of a Finnish man, they tend to hide their problems. In some countries, showing weakness as a man may even be a taboo. Organising activities in groups into which men are accepted with all their vulnerabilities may create a free atmosphere to share one’s thoughts and to find new courage.

Appealing marketing

Despite the acknowledged group motivation, motivating through instrumental approach may turn out to be more efficient. A course named “Want to surprise your family? Learn simple but delicious cooking!” may still reach your target group better than praising how absolutely amazing it is to learn new skills together in a wonderful group atmosphere.

In his recruitment efforts, Marko Järvenoja has tried to appeal to men by both chainsaws as well as pure willingness to help. Both have had results.

Järvenoja’s local branch of the Finnish Red Cross organised a recruitment event to get more male volunteers as friends and accompaniers for senior citizens.  They had an idea to host the event combined with a chainsaw exhibition. The event was a success.

However, chainsaws were only an encouragement, Järvenoja notes. According to him, pure willingness to give a helping hand is the main motivator that brings men into the volunteer groups.

Nevertheless, Järvenoja acknowledges there is traditional divide into women and men’s business.

− The figures of women studying social work and caring professions suggest that taking care of others has been, and still is, often considered as women’s role.

Heard from the field, an important point of marketing is that photos are influential. When planning the layout of the website or brochures on the course selection, attention should be paid on what the photos tell. Choosing images that do not strengthen a feminine image of the course or its contents may play a pivotal role.

Yoga for geezers? Gender sensitive marketing

In Finland, the urge to get more men involved has led to offering a range of all-male classes. It has also given foothold to ‘Yoga for geezers’ type of marketing.

Attracting men by activities targeted only for men has stirred up criticism.

If men are tuning motorbikes or try to find their zen in only-male yoga classes while women are decorating cakes and painting aquarelles, adult education centres may strengthen the existing gender stereotypes and traditional men and women’s roles.

The critics also argue that the learner should be seen not as a man or a woman, but as an individual with their own needs and strengths.

Professor Jyri Manninen suggests that instead of marketing yoga for geezers, one could market ‘Yoga for inflexible people.’

On the contrary, others argue that the lack of men is so severe that clearly male-targeted activities are legitimate.

− Folk high schools start to reach out for men from zero, noted the headmaster of Kerava Academy Pekka Rantanen some years ago. In the view of Rantanen, losing all men from the adult education scene is yet a bigger threat than stumbling on gender stereotypes.

All in all, it is important that all underrepresented groups, be it gender, age, socio-economic or ethnic differences, are taken into account. Work done in the field of adult education can function as a pioneer and an example for other actors and sectors in the society.

The article is based on five different articles published in Souli magazine in 2011-2015.
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