Are we really opening doors of education or closing them for our girls? While it is believed that formal education contributes to laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning skills, values, wisdom and positive judgement; do the school textbooks allow budding of future change agents or propagate gender division with misleading sexist ideas?
Several researches conducted across different countries analysing school textbooks at the primary level has revealed how educational content has been polarising gender stereotypes. In most cases either the text lacked gender sensitive language or pictorial depictions endangered masculinisation of jobs. UNESCO’s 2016 Global Education Monitoring report cited that “Whether measured in lines of text, proportion of named characters, mentions in titles, citations in indexes or other criteria, surveys show that females are overwhelmingly underrepresented in textbooks and curricula.”
BBC published a detailed report compiling comprehensive references of several studies conducted to analyse reflections of gender bias in textbooks used across schools around the globe. We are going to discuss a few of those citations that experts feel have been growing beyond continental boundaries.
Student textbooks in Tanzania depicted boys are “strong and athletic”, while girls take pride in their pretty dresses. A schoolbook in Pakistan illustrated all male figures as donning authoritative roles. A primary school reader in Haiti enumerated to students that mothers “take care of the kids and prepare the food” while fathers work “in offices.”
In Turkey, an animated representation of a boy shows him dreaming of becoming a doctor, while a girl of the same age imagines herself as a future bride clad in wedding gown. Sociologist Prof. Rae Lesser Blumberg from the University of Virginia, who has been avidly studying textbooks from around the globe, pointed out that “there are stereotypes of males and females camouflaged in what seems to be well-established roles for each gender.” She mentions in her study spanning over a decade how she witnessed women being either represented in subservient roles or written-out completely.
While gender bias is not restricted to textbooks alone, yet it is a paramount issue of discourse. As estimated by UNESCO, girls account for 54% of over 60 million children who don’t attend schools. Prof. Blumberg says that “we cannot educate the children of the future with books from the past.” “Gender bias is a low-profile education issue, not one that makes headlines when millions of children remain unschooled.” In 2016, UNESCO issued a glaring warning stating that the sexist attitudes projected in textbooks undermine the education of girls and limit their expectations from career and life.
As noted by experts, the problem is manifold. One of the most apparent aspects is the use of gender biased language. In most cases male references are used to imply universal aspects. For example, using words like ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘mankind’ etc. to mean the entire humanity. The second is an issue of invisibility, where references to women are skipped completely. For example, women’s achievements in history or across various fields and sectors are overlooked.
Prof. Blumberg exemplified that one book on scientists that projected Marie Curie for her discovery of radium and used an image for illustration projected her “as timidly peeking over her husband’s shoulder as he spoke to somebody else, a man who looked elegant and distinguished.” Thirdly, traditional stereotypes are ingrained in the depiction of jobs that men and women perform. This is not restricted to household alone but also extends to professional roles where personal traits and social expectations assigned to each gender are clichéd.
For instance, a man is shown as a doctor as opposed to a woman who is depicted as a nurse. Mostly, women are portrayed in domestic chores like cooking, washing or caring for children and elderly of the household.
The salient characteristics often determining such stereotypical roles pose greater risk to the image as they project women as passive and submissive. Since 1980’s, especially with feminist deliberations, there has been a greater push to scrutinize and bring in relevant reforms in textbooks in developed countries. An extensive research piloted in this field in 2011 by US covered 5600 children’s books published in the 20th century.
The study estimated that male representation was twice as often in titles and 1.6 times more as protagonists. Experts claim that though the research triggered efforts in reducing sexism, the progress is relatively “slow.” Moreover, some age old textbooks under scrutiny are widely used as many low income countries say that they don’t have a budget to replace them. Prof Blumberg points out to the alarming situation stating that “It is getting worse by the year, because the world is progressing, women are entering new occupations and household roles are changing, and books are not improving at the same pace, so the gap is widening.”
It’s a global concern: Research indicated that the problem is universal. In India, 10 NCERT textbooks for subjects including Hindi, English, Mathematics and Environmental Studies were reviewed. Major findings revealed how everything is socially constructed and that what is imparted to young minds have an everlasting impression that would shape their personalities and thought processes accordingly. A history book for the third grade did not display any career for women. Use of phrases such as father’s hard earned money indicate and reinforce a man is the sole breadwinner. Such examples are unending though.
In high-income and so called ‘developed’ countries like UK and China, a survey on Science textbooks exhibited that as much as 87% characters were male. In an extreme depiction in one Chinese book, as quoted by Prof Blumberg, “one heroine of the 1949 Communist Revolution has been depicted, not fighting for legislation or on the front-line with Mao, she is shown giving an umbrella to a male guard standing under the rain.” A study conducted in Australia in 2009, revealed that 57% of the characters in textbooks were men despite women accounting for greater strength of the total population.
Experts say that books construct, develop and influence an understanding of what is normal in society from the school children’s perspective. Research shows that even in the digitally narrowed settings where access to internet and other digital resources is easy, textbooks continue to remain primary index of reference, at least in poor countries. Pupils are estimated to read more than 32000 pages of textbooks from elementary to high school levels.
Is there hope in this dismal situation?
Over the past decade, UNESCO’s GEM Report reveals there have been some positive changes relating to gender equality in textbooks across the world. Particularly, Europe, North America and sub-Saharan Africa have increased use of references to women’s rights and gender discrimination. Sweden tops the chart as a change maker in spearheading modifications in projection of overall attitudes towards gender sensitivity and equality. Many books in the national cirriculam today incorporate gender neutral characters, pronouns and portray both men and women in equitable roles. A research in Hong Kong documented an equal representation of male and female characters in English Language textbooks.
A comprehensive review of textbooks at the national level is not only expensive and time consuming, but often diluted with incidences of budget cuts and red tapism. To name a few, countries like Jordan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Costa Rica, Argentina, China and India also made some progress.
One of the pertinent challenges that need to be addressed before rewriting textbooks is to train teachers, as in most cases, the same teachers have been imparting knowldege based on these old books with irrelevant inferences. Measures to reexamine books along with corresponding training on gender sensitivity to teachers would be a sensible approach to handling and weeding out gender bias.
Article by Rochita.