100 Women: ‘We can’t teach girls of the future with books of the past’
In a textbook for students in Tanzania, boys are strong and athletic, while girls just look proud of their pretty frilly dresses. In a primary school reader in Haiti, pupils learn that mothers “take care of the kids and prepare the food” as fathers work “in an office”. There’s a Pakistani illustrated book where all politicians, authoritative and powerful, are male. In Turkey, a cartoon of a boy shows him dreaming of becoming a doctor. Meanwhile a girl imagines herself as a future bride in white gown. The list goes on – and knows no geographical boundaries.
Gender bias is rife in primary school learning books and can be found, in a strikingly similar form, on every continent, various experts say. It is a problem “hidden in plain sight”. “There are stereotypes of males and females camouflaged in what seems to be well-established roles for each gender,” says sociologist Rae Lesser Blumberg.
Prof Blumberg, from the University of Virginia, has been studying textbooks from around the world for over a decade, and says she has seen women systematically written out, or portrayed in subservient roles. “Gender bias is a low-profile education issue, not one that makes headlines when millions of children remain unschooled,” she says.
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Although school enrolment has increased dramatically since 2000, Unesco estimates that over 60 million children still never set foot in a classroom – 54% of them are girls. “These books perpetuate gender imbalance,” says Prof Blumberg. “We cannot educate the children of the future with books from the past.”
Invisible or stereotyped
Last year, the UN’s education agency Unesco issued a stark warning. Sexist attitudes are so pervasive that textbooks end up undermining the education of girls and limiting their career and life expectations, Unesco says – and they represent a “hidden obstacle” to achieving gender equality.
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”, says University of Albany’s Aaron Benavot, former director of Unesco’s 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report.
The problem is threefold, experts say. The most evident aspect is the use of gender-biased language, as often male words are chosen to mean all of humanity. Then there’s an issue of invisibility, as women are often absent from the texts, their roles in history and everyday life subsumed by male characters. There was one textbook about scientists I particularly remember, and the only woman in it was Marie Curie,” says Prof Blumberg. “But was she shown discovering radium? No, she was timidly peeking over her husband’s shoulder as he spoke to somebody else, a man who looked elegant and distinguished.” Thirdly, there are traditional stereotypes in use about the jobs that men and women perform, both in the household and outside, as well as cliched social expectations and traits assigned to each gender.
An Italian textbook provides a striking example in a chapter that teaches vocabulary for different occupations, with 10 different options for men, from fireman to dentist, and none for women. Meanwhile, women are often portrayed in domestic tasks, from cooking and washing to caring for the children and elderly. “The concern is also that women are portrayed as passive, submissive, fulfilling these gender stereotypical roles,” says education specialist Catherine Jere, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia who was also involved in the GEM report.
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