Countries are still falling short of developing textbooks free of gender stereotypes

By Nicole Bella, GEM Report and Matthias Eck, UNESCO (Read in Spanish)

Textbooks are powerful factors in the construction of gender identities. They transmit knowledge and present social and gender norms, shaping the world vision of children and young people. In some contexts, textbooks are the first and sometimes the only books that a young person may read and can have a lasting impact on their perceptions. And yet they still often perpetuate discriminatory social norms and values. This must be challenged.

Under its strategic objective B.4, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a blueprint for women’s rights signed by 189 countries in 1995 called upon countries to develop curricula, textbooks and teaching aids free of gender-based stereotypes for all levels of education, including teacher training. Twenty-five years after the adoption of this objective, girls and women are still under-represented in textbooks or, when included, depicted in traditional roles in many countries, a truth found in in teaching and learnings materials from all corners of the globe as new analysis in the recently released 2020 GEM Gender Report shows.

A review of 95 primary and secondary compulsory education textbooks in the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, showed that women accounted for only 37% of images. There were no images of women in about 60% of textbooks for Farsi and foreign language, 63% for science and 74% for social science. In the United States, a study of introductory economics textbooks found that 18% of characters mentioned were female, mostly portrayed in relation to food, fashion or entertainment. A report on the way that women’s history was reflected in pre-primary, primary and secondary social studies found that 53% of mentions of women referred to domestic and family roles and 2% to entry into the workforce.

An analysis of preschool textbooks in Morocco found that only 10% of images depicting women showed them doing paid work. In Uganda, secondary school physics textbooks generally did not mention the gender of objects and subjects. However, use of gendered nouns (e.g. boy) and pronouns (e.g. his) gave the text gender connotations, while illustrations referred to men.

Countries have been using different strategies to remedy this situation. Three case studies featured in the 2020 GEM Gender Report illustrate the successes and challenges to address the issue.

In the Comoros, all teaching and learning materials were imported from France until 2015, when textbooks started to be produced in-country. The Ministry of Education prioritized the quantity of textbooks produced per pupil over their content. While it aimed to promote gender equality through education, there was no explicit guidance on how to operationalize this in curricula and textbooks.

Slight improvements in gender-responsiveness of textbooks production after 2015 are largely the result of individual commitment. Staff of the entities involved in textbook development pushed for integrating a gender dimension into the material. The Francophone Initiative for Teacher Distance Training distributed teacher-training manuals with a gender dimension and financed the training of education officials aiming to increase the participation of girls in STEM. But the lack of greater progress can be attributed to the difficulties that those working on textbook development faced in detaching themselves from familial, social and religious influences. There was also lack of opportunities for textbook developers to be sensitized or trained on how to eliminate gender stereotypes as content was written.

The government of Ethiopia has demonstrated clear commitment to gender equality in education, developing and revising textbooks and providing gender responsive professional development for teachers, while mainstreaming gender-responsive pedagogy in teacher education. Different institutions, including the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), Plan International, UNESCO with its International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa, and USAID, financed gender-related interventions in the country, for instance in research, community training, in-service gender-responsive professional development, and advice to policy makers. Despite this political will, gender stereotypes in Ethiopian textbooks remain.

Textbooks still regularly portray men as powerful, assertive and intelligent leaders, doctors, engineers and politicians. Women are portrayed as weak, passive and submissive and mostly depicted in domestic, caregiving and supportive roles. A study on social studies textbooks in grades 5-8 found only 12% of names were female. Stories of African kings, male freedom fighters and leaders dominate, whereas females actively involved in the independence struggle were forgotten.

Understanding why political will has not translated into better improvements means looking at depth at the process of textbook development. In Ethiopia, such analysis uncovers that women did not participate in textbook development and review processes, that training on processes was lacking and that there was limited commitment among authorities to challenge discriminatory social and gender norms. In addition, most textbook revision processes made at different times since 1995 were not based on strong evidence from gender studies and research.

Nepal, which appointed a gender expert to review gender responsiveness in textbooks in 1999 and introduced a house style for the drafting of gender responsive teaching and learning materials in grades 9 and 10. The style mandates that textbooks should represent both men and women in a similar way. Gender-biased words such as headmaster, chairman, manpower would be replaced with words such as principal, chairperson and sales person. The guidelines have been accompanied by two gender audits as well as the appointment of a gender link officer. A new policy was introduced in 2007 calling for all materials to be reviewed every 5 years and reformed every 10.

As a result of these reforms, textbooks are much more gender-sensitive even though a holistic overhaul of all gender stereotypes has not yet happened. In current textbooks, pictures of women are extensively used to represent all professions, for instance. Yet, in many instances, terms like ‘clever’ and ‘responsible’ are still used only for males, while females are shown to be passive and submissive. Two possible considerations missed were that, even in 2017, most textbook writers were male, while a gender audit has been done only twice since 1999.

Several lessons can be drawn from these case studies. The core being that addressing gender-stereotypes in textbooks will not happen overnight. Developing gender-responsive teaching and learning material needs strong national leadership and has to be embedded in general policies on gender equality in education. Gender audits of teaching and learning materials should be conducted regularly. A textbook revision process needs to be inclusive, ensuring that women participate equally and that their views are heard. It also has to be based on research with those participating receiving training on the development of gender-responsive materials. The gender dimension has to be explicitly inscribed in tenders, terms of reference and contracts related to the drafting of teaching and learning materials, including gender specific indicators. Finally, yet importantly, teachers need to be trained in the use of gender-responsive teaching materials.

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4 comments

    1. The open textbooks movement aims to address the concerns of access and affordability of teaching and learning materials by making them free or purchased at a little cost. This in itself is quite important and could be a solution to the challenge of insufficient availability of textbooks in many contexts. Yet, improving access to learning materials does not necessary mean that those that are freely made accessible are gender-sensitive and free of stereotypes. As the copyright permissions on open textbooks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_textbook) includes the right to adapt them by revising and combining them with other materials, this could be a way to make them gender-responsive. For this to happen, those in charge of adapting these materials need to be aware of gender issues and be trained to address them.

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