We must stamp out stereotypical teaching tools

Gender bias in textbooks is one of the best camouflaged and hardest to budge rocks in the road to gender equality in education. Through stereotypical and unbalanced depictions of men and women in stories and illustrations, textbooks undermine values and attitudes conducive to gender equality and empowerment, a cornerstone in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

card-2Our latest policy paper, about which we’ve been running an extensive blog series over recent weeks, has taken a detailed look at the content of textbooks. This week we will be focusing on the way they cover gender issues and women’s rights, in order to help feed into an online WikiGender discussion with OECD and UNESCO. Partners for the discussion include UNGEI (United Nations Girls Education Initiative), FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists), GPE (Global Partnership for Education) and the Council of Europe. Join us online this week via the website, or tune into the Google Hangout this Friday at 3pm CET. It is lined up to be a vibrant discussion.


Despite the knee-jerk reaction to imagine the worst, it’s not all bad news: content in textbooks related to gender equality has increased over the past few decades. The percentage of textbooks mentioning women’s rights rose from 15% in the 1946-1969 period to 37% in the 2000-2011 period; mention of discrimination against women increased from 16% to 38% in the same time frame.

Behind these numbers, however, there remains a significant amount of questionable content in textbooks when you take a hard look at the references, illustrations and people being featured. Often it’s not so much about who is mentioned, but rather who is not. An extensive number of studies, in countries including Algeria, France, Pakistan, Spain, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, have pointed to the invisibility of women in teaching and learning materials, for example, and how this reflects and perpetuates women’s marginal status in society.

In many textbooks, stories, images or explicitly mentioned examples either do not include women or depict them in submissive, traditional roles, such as housework or serving men. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, women make up of only 37% of over 3,000 images in primary and secondary school textbooks in use in 2006-2007.

Moreover, women in textbooks are rarely depicted as working or professional women. When women who work outside of their homes are portrayed, they’re often shown in roles, typically associated with teaching, or caring professions such as nurses and social workers. Men, by contrast, are shown in occupations including as politicians, businessmen, teachers, policemen or doctors.

Apart from which occupations, men are also shown in a far greater variety of activities and occupations than women. In Italy, grade 4 textbooks from 10 major publishers published in early 2000s assigned 50 different professions to men but only 15 to women. This is hardly a good example to set to aspiring young girls and women learning from the books in the classroom.

A Nigerian textbook gives a stereotypical picture of jobs according to gender

In Lebanon, civics textbooks from grades 1 to 12 published between 2004 and 2012 showed men as being far more likely to be political leaders than women. Out of the 155 references to women’s political participation, 114 showed men as political leaders, participating in decision-making, debates, summits and international conferences. Women’s political participation was restricted to voting in elections.

Bangladesh 2013 English for Today

Lastly, if you’re looking closely, it stands out that textbooks often leave out influential women in history, as shown by a study of 9 Jordanian and 13 Palestinian history, civics and national education textbooks used from seventh to twelfth grade and published between 2004 and 2008. In Jordan, 79% of the images feature men and boys in history textbooks compared with 21% of women and girls.

The situation is even more striking in Palestine, where history textbooks have no focus on women’s roles at all. A 2004 history textbook for grade 10 gives examples of Western scientists and inventors such as John Dalton, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein and refers to the Marie Curie as the “Polish wife” of Pierre Curie, rather than as a scientist in her own right.

Nevertheless, there are certainly grounds for optimism. Some countries, such as Viet Nam, have made important steps towards including gender equality in their textbooks, as their Minister for Education recently wrote about on this blog.

The below photos should help show the sorts of challenges many textbook reviewers are up against as they look to draw learning materials in line with the core values and principles of the Sustainable Development Agenda, including gender equality and empowerment. Join us this week online to discuss the following three questions, and exchange best practices and strategies for addressing gender stereotypes in the classroom.

  1. card-3How is the existing learning environment influencing adolescent girls’ education outcomes? What are some of the recent trends in the development of teaching materials (including textbook content)?
  2. Which policies, campaigns and initiatives have successfully helped to counter gender stereotypes in school settings? Which strategies are more efficient and why? How can we scale them up?
  3. How can we advocate for a stronger measurement framework and solidify indicators on gender inequality in education, so that we know where progress is being made and where challenges remain?






1 comment

  1. Wow. Spot on blog. I totally agree and I would like just add on my perspective. I teach in a predominantly ethnic minority school and tutoring center and I have noticed that cultural bias amongst south Asian’s is also a huge barrier, where boys are sent to supplementary classes but girls aren’t. These areas of northern Britain, England, where Pakistani and Indian’s migrated to work in mill factories, has the problems you have discussed in your blog.

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