By Aaron Benavot, Director of the GEM Report and Catherine Jere, University of East Anglia
Today, on International Women’s day, we are investigating the persistence of gender bias in textbooks, and reminding policy makers that until it is addressed girls’ motivation, participation and achievement in school will continue to be undermined, affecting their future life chances.
As well as investigating the way that gender discrimination and inequality is reflected in textbooks’ pages, a future policy paper later this year will look at the way that education for sustainable development, and global citizenship, including human rights, environmental rights, peace and non-violence, and cultural diversity are portrayed. As such, our focus on textbook content supports the emphasis in the Sustainable Development Agenda on inclusive, quality learning.
Gender bias in textbooks holds back girls’ achievement
Textbooks are used by teachers as a core means of teaching in 70-95% of classroom time. Gender-sensitive books can encourage children to discuss gender stereotypes and help promote equitable behaviour. Conversely, discriminatory gender norms and practices conveyed in and through textbooks can lower their engagement in the classroom and limit their expectations in education and in life.
Unfortunately, however measured – in lines of text, proportions of named characters, mentions in titles, citations in indexes – girls and women are under-represented in textbooks and curricula.
Studies of Chinese pre-primary and primary textbooks cited in the EFA GMR 2008 showed that males were disproportionately represented, and females appeared frequently only in reading materials for very young children. The proportion of male characters rose from 48% in books for 4-year-olds to 61% in those for 6-year-olds. In social studies texts all scientists and soldiers were depicted as male while all teachers and three-quarters of service personnel were female. Females represented only about one-fifth of the historical characters in the twelve-volume primary Chinese textbooks, and appeared dull and lifeless in comparison with the more vibrant males.
In India, on average, more than half the illustrations in primary English, Hindi, mathematics, science and social studies textbooks depicted only males, while only 6% showed just females. In the six mathematics books used in primary schools, men dominated activities representing commercial, occupational and marketing situations, with not a single woman depicted as an executive, engineer, shopkeeper or merchant.
Research has also found that the proportion of female characters to males in mathematics textbooks in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Tunisia was 30% in each country in the late 2000s. In addition, both genders were generally shown in highly stereotyped household and occupational roles, with stereotyped actions, attitudes and traits. Women were portrayed as accommodating, nurturing household workers and girls as passive conformists, while boys and men were engaged in almost all the impressive, noble, exciting and fun things, and almost none of the care-giving roles.
We have a new opportunity to set matters straight
The EFA GMR 2015 showed that the setting of global education goals in the past provided an impetus for donors and governments to redress gender bias in education. With the beginning of our new education agenda set last year by the UN renewed efforts in this direction are needed.
One of three strategies in Pakistan’s 2001–2015 EFA action plan to improve gender parity and equality was a call for curricula and textbooks to be free of gender bias, for instance. In addition, international agencies including the World Bank have promoted policies and initiatives to tackle gender bias in textbooks in low income countries. Several large education initiatives – including in Bangladesh, Chad, Ghana, Guinea and Nepal – had explicit components aimed at eliminating gender bias from curricula and/ or textbooks. Similarly, UNESCO has also funded gender audits of textbooks, including in Jordan and Pakistan. In China, the Ford Foundation funded research to investigate gender bias in textbooks and supported the development of education plans, activities and reference materials to promote gender equality.
Despite these attempts to provide greater gender balance, however, recent studies show that bias in textbooks remains pervasive in many countries, including Georgia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nigeria and Pakistan and some high income countries such as Australia.
A 2015 study in Pakistan, for example, found no change in the negative portrayal of women in Pakistani text books since 2004. In Iran in 2012, men made up 80% of characters in books designed by the Ministry of Education.
In Australia, despite there being more females than males in the country, a study carried out in 2009 found that 57% of the characters in textbooks were men. There were double the amount of men portrayed in law and order roles, and four times as many depicting characters engaged in politics and government.
Why the resistance to update?
A lack of political leadership and weak support by civil society limit enactment of policy reform to eliminate gender bias in instructional materials. In some instances, policy recommendations from the global level have failed to find sufficient national support, resulting in slow progress. While the findings of the Ford Foundation research were widely disseminated in China, some stakeholders were skeptical about the importance of advocating for change. In Pakistan, resistance within institutions responsible for curriculum reform and textbook production has contributed to the low political priority given to textbook revision, reinforced by a lack of public support. Another challenge, as found in Georgia, is that key professionals responsible for providing guidelines for textbook production and approving textbooks for use lack adequate knowledge regarding gender sensitivity.
However, some countries are showing positive change, with textbooks reflecting gender equality and women and girls’ active participation in society. In Jordan, women are portrayed as prime ministers, as fighters and pilots. In Palestine, they are shown as street demonstrators, and voting.
Some Indian and Malawian textbooks challenge students to identify gender bias in accompanying illustrations and urge them to discuss these stereotypes with their peers. Sweden, likewise, is also complimented for its egalitarian approach to gender in its textbooks.
#Between the lines
We want you to help us with our investigation. Join us on Instagram where we have just launched (@GEMReport). Send us photos of your textbooks marked #betweenthelines that you feel are positive examples of the way education is promoting gender equality, and sustainable development more widely, and of those you feel are perpetuating traditional norms and biases. Yes, it may be hard to find the data that will make gender equality easy for us to measure as we work towards our development deadline in 2030, but this campaign works on the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words! We will launch an online exhibition of the best of these contributions with the launch of our next policy paper on the subject.