Unspoken Inequalities. The Problems of Men in Europe

Michał Gulczyński

In many developed countries, polarization of young women and men has been increasingly visible in polls and has been noted by public opinion. While young men form a large share of voters of such radical right parties as Konfederacja, AfD or Vox, young women tend to support centre-left and left-wing parties.1

In consequence of the reversal of the education gender gap and postponement of or abstention from family formation, life courses of young women and men diverge. In contrast with the expectation that gender equality would make their lives more similar, nowadays, their lives become more separate. This creates conditions for an inter-gender political conflict and polarization of the youngest generations.

Many commentators attribute this divide to the openness and progressiveness of girls, on the one hand, and boys’ fear of losing their ‘male privileges’, on the other. In my view, more than any ‘fear’ i.e. an emotion caused by a potential future outcome, it is their frustration with their life course, environment and public policies. While women’s issues are addressed by many politicians in deeds or at least rhetorically (even of the radical right2), men’s problems remain unspoken. Men who lag behind cannot expect much compassion nor interest from those politicians who speak about inequalities the most.

In this article, I present the most striking structural problems that young men face nowadays in Europe. I extend my more detailed report on the situation and prospects of men in Poland (published by Klub Jagielloński and accessible in Polish3) to a wider European context, with a particular focus on Central and Eastern Europe and the possible role of the European Union.

When speaking about men, scholars, activists and policy-makers usually focus on problems with men. Instead, I present some problems of men in three most important areas: education, health and migration. Their scale calls for action. The purpose of my approach to gender inequalities is not to belittle women’s problems but rather complement the public debate with the perspective of men, particularly of the lower class. If we want to understand the “anti-gender backlash” and gender gaps in political preferences, instead of blaming men for their views, we must learn more about how they live and what they observe, think and feel.


Women in EU27 are over 30% more likely to get a tertiary degree than men. The share of women aged 25-34 with a tertiary degree went up from 25.3% in 2002 to 46.0% in 2020 (Graph 1). In the same time and age group, the share of men with tertiary degree increased from 21.0% to 35.2%. In other words, the gender gap more than doubled (from 4.3 p.p. to 10.8) in less than a generation. While tertiary education has become more common, it has been much more so among women than among men.

There is some notable heterogeneity between countries (Graph 2). The advantage of young women is particularly large in post-communist countries (Slovakia, Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, Czechia, Lithuania) with women having up to 68% higher chance of getting a degree than men. Germany is the only EU country where women have less than 10% advantage.

Graph 1. Share of women and men with tertiary education in the age group 25-34, EU27, 2002-2020.

Data source: Eurostat, Population by educational attainment level, sex and age (%) – main indicators, edat_lfse_03 (ISCED levels 5-8).

Graph 2. Share of women and men with tertiary education in the age group 25-34, EU27, 2020.

Data source: Eurostat, Population by educational attainment level, sex and age (%) – main indicators, edat_lfse_03 (ISCED levels 5-8).

There are two main reasons why women go to universities more often and, once they do, they are less likely to drop out. The first one is a combination of gendered segregation into professions and of the differences in the expected returns to formal education. Feminized professions – like school teacher or nurse – require formal higher education. In contrast, masculinized jobs, even those well remunerated – like programmer or carpenter – do not require any degree. In other words, men can still do fairly well on the job market without much formal education.

Second, boys lag behind already at school. According to the international PISA study, the largest gender gap in skills concerns the disadvantage of boys in reading and it affects the worst performing boys and those coming from disadvantaged background the most. In contrast, the gender gap in average skills in mathematics is not statistically significant in most OECD countries. Also, contrary to reading, the gender gap in mathematics arises typically at the top of the distribution, among the strongest, not the weakest students.

On average, 17.5% girls and 27.7% boys in OECD do not attain the minimum level of proficiency in reading (Graph 3). It means that, although they can read sentences, they are not able to understand longer texts, locate information or reflect on the presented argumentation. Within Europe, there is no clear geographical pattern neither in the absolute shares, nor in the gender gap. The ratio between boys and girls who struggle with reading is similar in all countries: usually, there are between 50% and 100% more boys than girls in this group.

In general, with similar results in mathematics and science but a considerable advantage in reading, girls have better achievements at school and can feel more disposed to continue formal education. Also, they may opt for social and human sciences to STEM not only because of any natural or culturally induced interests, but because of their comparative advantage.4

Graph 3. The shares of boys and girls who did not attain the minimum proficiency level in reading in the PISA 2018 study.

Source: OECD, PISA 2018, Annex B1, Results for countries and economies, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/pisa-2018-results-volume-ii_b9935c8e-en.

The reversed education gender gap cannot be ignored because better education does not only contribute to higher income. It also affects social status and mobility,5 health and life length,6 different socialization – with impact on political views7 and behaviour.8 Even if we do not realize the full implications of the imbalanced education, it will surely influence the capacity of the now young men to adapt to globalization and automation in the future.

This inequality has important implications for the EU flagship project: Erasmus+. Women do not only go abroad much more often than their male colleagues just because they more frequently study at a university. They are overrepresented even in comparison with the share of female students (Graph 4). Again, Central and Eastern European countries stand out to the advantage of women, with as much as 75% Erasmus students coming from Latvia being female. Another outlying countries are Cyprus and Greece with highest underrepresentation of men in relation to their share among students.9

Erasmus+ is meant to foster “quality jobs and social cohesion, to driving innovation, and to strengthening European identity and active citizenship.”10 According to the annual report in 2019, an Erasmus exchange is “a turning point in the lives of European students.” It should be also regarded as a programme of mass scope: over 350 thousand students moved for study or traineeship in 2019. Interestingly, the yearly reports of the Erasmus programme do not contain any reference to gender balance in participation, despite gender equality being declared as one of the programme priorities and specific projects being dedicated to gender-balance in STEM and gender equality in motor sport11.

Graph 4. The over-representation of female students in the ERASMUS program is systematic across countries.

Graph source: Böttcher L., Araújo N.A.M., Nagler J., Mendes J.F.F., Helbing D., Herrmann H.J. 2016. Gender Gap in the ERASMUS Mobility Program, “PLoS ONE”, 11 (2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149514, Fig. 3.

Geographic mobility

Rural areas in Europe are full of single men. Attracted by education institutions, public services and more jobs in services, women migrate to cities much more often than men. While it is not a new phenomenon, it may have new political implications with the recent emergence of the rural-urban divide and depopulation of rural areas.

The feminization ratio (the proportion of women to men) among young adults is strongly correlated with population density in NUTS3 regions, i.e., even at a relatively high level of aggregation. In the least densely populated rural areas, there are many more young men than women. According to the Eurostat data for 2019, there are extremely few women in the age group from 25 to 34 on some Greek islands (starting with one woman per two men in Samos and Ikaria, 40% less women in Lesvos and Limnos, Chios), many peripheral areas in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. Lithuanian Utenos, Romanian Tulcea and Vaslui, Eastern and Northern Estonia), but also in Sweden (e.g. Norrbotten County with 16% less young women than men) and Germany (e.g. Ilm-Kreis). One exception from this rule are German cities with technical universities (Aachen and Kaiserslautern) and in Eastern Germany (Dresden).

In contrast, there are 13% more young women than man in Warsaw, 11% more in Bucarest, 9% in Kraków, 8% in Düsseldorf, Wrocław and Paris. As the title of a popular TV show says, “farmer wants a wife” while a studentess is looking for a partner. The imbalances stem from a much higher mobility of young women from peripheral and rural areas and result in a divergence of life courses –and, in consequence, world views– of young women and men.

Graph 5. Feminization ratio in the age group 25-34 and population density, 2019.

Data source: Eurostat. Population density by NUTS 3 region [DEMO_R_D3DENS] and Population on 1 January by age group, sex and NUTS 3 region [DEMO_R_PJANGRP3].


Men live shorter than women on average by 5.5 years in EU27. Although some life expectancy gender gap may result from natural factors,12 the international heterogeneity suggests that cultural and systemic factors contribute not less.

The life expectancy gender gap is particularly large –even in the global perspective– in Central and Eastern European countries. Notably, before the Covid-19 pandemic, men lived 9.6 years less than women in Lithuania and 9.2 years in Lithuania. On the other hand, this gap amounts to only 3.1 years in the Netherlands. The large differences between countries show that culture and policies, including welfare and health care systems, can have a strong impact on the life length of women and men. Besides the life expectancy gender gap, other predominantly male problems related to health and welfare are alcoholism, homelessness and suicides rates.

Graph 6. Life expectancy for women and men in 2019.

Data source: Eurostat, Eurostat, Life expectancy by age and sex [DEMO_MLEXPEC]. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/demo_mlexpec/default/table?lang=en.

The life expectancy gender gap may contribute to the disappointment of men with the welfare state. If we add up two further factors: that men enter the labour market earlier (by even 4 years in Slovakia and 3 years in Czechia13) and some of countries have still a higher retirement age for men (e.g. in Poland without plans to equalize it), we realize that the biggest welfare programme –the pension system– is heavily taxing men. On average, in the EU27, men work on the labour market 38.0 and women work 33.2 years. In the extreme case, an average Polish men expects to work 3.1 times as many years as he’ll live after retirement. For a Polish women, this ratio is equal to 1.4. It may be one of the explanations why men are attracted to radical right parties like AfD, Konfederacja or Vox, which propose sometimes radically liberal economic rhetoric or policies.

Historically, the gendered redistribution was less relevant for political behaviour. Most people lived in stable households formed by a man and a woman, where the costs and benefits of gendered redistribution cancelled out. However, in the 21st century, we form families later, less frequently and are more likely to divorce. The individualism of economic calculations may encourage men to reject redistribution. The burden is also larger for young people in an ageing society, i.e., when the number of dependents grows faster than the number of those who work and contribute to the welfare system. In this way, the intergenerational conflict is strongly gendered.

Consequences for Politics and Policy-Making

Although Eurosceptic attitudes are often linked to the resistance against progressivism and, in particular, gender equality as commonly identified with women empowerment,14 neither policy-makers nor scholars pay attention to the structural foundations of men’s anti-establishment sentiments. The last generations of men have been less socially and geographically mobile than their female counterparts, while public institutions and civic society have been expressing their increasing support for women. The situation of men is particularly depressing in Central and Eastern European countries, where they are much less likely to study, move up on the social ladder and live as long as their female contemporaries.

Neither the EU institutions – heralded as the champion of gender equality – nor the national institutions in the EU Member States seem to realize the importance of the above mentioned problems. If gender equality policies mention men, it is only to deal with the problems with men, not the problems of men. In this way, the institutions and policy-makers add insult to injury.

For instance, the newest Gender Equality Strategy of the European Commission starts with the chapter on gender-based violence and posits education programmes for men to prevent them from committing such crimes. In this way, as the starting point for policy-making, men are introduced as potential criminals. Although the Strategy mentions that men are less educated and, perhaps surprisingly, less digitally literate, it is only to underline the scarcity of women in STEM. The Strategy does not express any concern with men dropping out of education, being much more often functionally illiterate, much less geographically mobile or benefiting much less from Erasmus scholarships.

In order to reconcile men’s reality with gender equality strategies and make the gender equality agenda work for both genders, international and national institutions, policy-makers, civic society and scholars should consider at least three changes. First, we should acknowledge how distinct the concepts of gender equality and women empowerment are in the European context. So far, under the first label, the latter target is adopted as the goal. The intersectional approach becomes particularly useful here. Importantly, we must accept that once we adopt it, we will discover the sensitive situation of men of the lower class. This contrasts with the interpretation of intersectionality presented in the Gender Equality Strategy, introduced only to discover further aspects of discrimination against women.

Second, we must admit that men can be a target population of public policies. If public institutions launch programmes nudging women to pursue a career in STEM or supporting them in reaching to the top of the hierarchy in academia, it is even more justified to deal with the enormous gender gaps in literacy or education attainment. Those are mass problems and concern particularly boys from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Third, demographic and regional development strategies must take into account the feminization of migration. We must create conditions for gender balanced migrations: either better opportunities for women to stay in the less densely populated areas or for men to leave. In the short term, we must take care of the local conditions being liveable for the men who stay. Otherwise, the conflicts based on gender and the rural-urban divide will increasingly tear apart our societies.

Michał Gulczyński


1See e.g. Spierings N., Zaslove, A. 2015. Gendering the vote for populist radical-right parties, “Patterns of Prejudice”, 49:1-2, p. 135-162, https://doi.org/10.1080/0031322X.2015.1024404.

Gutsche, E. 2019. Triumph of the Women? The Female Face of the Populist and Far Right in Europe. http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/dialog/14636.pdf.

2E.g.: Rashkova, E.R. 2021. ‘Gender Politics and Radical Right Parties: An Examination of Women’s Substantive Representation in Slovakia’. East European Politics and Societies, 35 (1), p. 69–88. https://doi.org/10.1177/0888325419897993.

Farris, Sara R. 2017. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Duke University Press.

3Gulczyński, M. 2021. Przemilczane Nierówności. O problemach mężczyzn w Polsce. Klub Jagielloński. https://klubjagiellonski.pl/publikacje/przemilczane-nierownosci-o-problemach-mezczyzn-w-polsce/.

4Sadowski, I., Zawistowska, A. 2020. The Net Effect of Ability Tilt in Gendered STEM-Related Choices. “Intelligence”, 80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2020.101439.

5Breen R. 2019. Education and intergenerational social mobility in the US and four European countries, “Oxford Review of Economic Policy”, 35 (3), p. 445–466. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxrep/grz013.

6Hamad R., Elser H., Tran D.C., Rehkopf D.H., Goodman S.N. 2018. How and why studies disagree about the effects of education on health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies of compulsory schooling laws, “Social Science & Medicine”, 212, p. 168–178. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.07.016.

7Cavaille C., Marshall, J., Education and Anti-Immigration Attitudes: Evidence from Compulsory Schooling Reforms across Western Europe, “American Political Science Review”, 2019, 113 (1), 254–263. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055418000588.

8Persson, M., Education and Political Participation, “British Journal of Political Science”, 2013, 45 (3), s. 689–703. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007123413000409.

Byhoff E., Hamati M.C., Power R. et al. Increasing educational attainment and mortality reduction: a systematic review and taxonomy, “BMC Public Health”, 2017, 719. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4754-1.

9Böttcher L., Araújo N.A.M., Nagler J., Mendes J.F.F., Helbing D., Herrmann H.J., Gender Gap in the ERASMUS Mobility Program, “PLoS ONE”, 2016, 11 (2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149514.

10European Commission, Priorities of the Erasmus Programme, https://erasmus-plus.ec.europa.eu/programme-guide/part-a/priorities-of-the-erasmus-programme/objectives-features.

11European Commission. 2020. Erasmus+ annual report 2019. https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/30af2b54-3f4d-11eb-b27b-01aa75ed71a1/language-en.

12For a discussion, see e.g. Luy, M., Wegner-Siegmundt, Ch. 2015. The Impact of Smoking on Gender Differences in Life Expectancy: More Heterogeneous than Often Stated. “The European Journal of Public Health” 25 (4), p. 706–10. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/cku211.

13OECD. Pensions at a Glance 2015. Age of labour market entry in selected OECD countries, 2013. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/social-issues-migration-health/pensions-at-a-glance-2015/age-of-labour-market-entry-in-selected-oecd-countries-2013_pension_glance-2015-graph28-en.

14Korolczuk, E., Graff, A. 2018. Gender as “Ebola from Brussels”: The Anticolonial Frame and the Rise of Illiberal Populism. “Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society”, 43 (4), p. 797–821. https://doi.org/10.1086/696691.

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