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What Are We Teaching Our Kids With The Existing Gender Bias In The Curricula?

Posted: June 22, 2020

Our curriculum is filled with books talking and teaching about men. What are we trying to teach our kids by promoting gender bias?

Long before our life was halted by the prevailing pandemic, it all started as a little experiment in my drawing class on a Saturday. The task for the day was to draw and describe one out of the three: a surgeon, a firefighter, or a pilot. In barely a minute, my creative 4th graders got to work and their elaborate drawings started to come out. Prashant had made a cape for his firefighter, Tanvi was designing equipment for her surgeon, and Himanshu had made a huge aeroplane for his pilot.

Half an hour later, what emerged from the exercise was nothing less than a shock to my students. To my surprise, all of them had drawn only male surgeons, male firefighters, and male pilots. As soon as they realized what had happened, my classroom was abuzz with discussions. Especially, the girls were shocked to realize that they had been operating unintentionally with a bias against their gender. Some of them even tried to prove their choice, mostly with arguments of males being better than females for these professions due to the need for physical strength. Post all those arguments, my students took their first step that day to acknowledge the gender bias that prevailed in our classroom.

Why we only read about  ‘a man’ in our books?

Barely a week later, when I asked Ilma to read aloud a lesson on transportation, she paused as she came across the sentence that read, “Man has travelled from one place to another for various purposes since time immemorial.” She asked me at once, “Didi, why a man? Did a woman never travel? Suddenly the quiet Anshuman jumped in, “Or could they not write humans in the place of a man?”.

The entire class agreed and started engaging in discussions on the number of times they had observed the same in other texts. I had hardly realized the impact of the universal substitution of men for humans in textbooks until that moment.

And that was when I took my first step towards diving deeper into the matter. I soon realized that this problem wasn’t merely limited to students’ mindsets or the words in some textbooks, but gender bias has seeped into our curriculum, and most of us in the education system are hardly aware of it, forget thinking about its implications, or how to take corrective action.

Male dominating curriculum 

This is a worrying state, for it is the curriculum that shapes much of the school day. Students spend 80% to 95% of classroom time with curricular materials, including textbooks, and us teachers make a majority of their instructional decisions based on these materials.

These materials are far from objective and soon biases emerge. Gender bias, for example, teaches many harmful, if unintended lessons. Studies on the curriculum from around the world indicate that females are underrepresented and that both males and females are depicted in gender-stereotyped ways.

For example, textbooks still routinely name Thomas Hunt Morgan as the person who discovered that sex was determined by chromosomes rather than the environment, even though that it was Nettie Stevens‘ experiments on mealworms that established this. This neglect is even more shocking, given the existence of correspondence between the two, where Morgan writes to Stevens for details of her experiment!

On the other hand, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin’s discovery that the Sun is predominantly composed of Hydrogen is often credited to her male supervisor, Henry Norris Russell. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of injustice is Rosalind Franklin, whose work using X-Ray experiments and unit cell measurements concluded that DNA consists of two chains and a phosphate backbone, led James Watson and Francis Crick (now Nobel winning household names) to “discover” DNA.

Lack of female representation in our education system

In 2015, a British A level student, Jesse McCabe noticed that of the sixty-three set works included in her music syllabus, not a single one was by a woman. When she wrote to her exam board, Edexcel, they defended the syllabus by saying: “Given that female music composer were not prominent in the western classical tradition, there would be very few female composers that could be included.”

The phrasing here is important. Edexcel didn’t mean that there aren’t any female composers-after all the International Encyclopedia of Women composers alone has more than 6,000 entries. What they are talking about is the “canon”: the body of works generally attributed to have been the most influential in shaping Western culture. As well as going some way to explaining their exclusion from the cultural history, the exclusion of women from positions of power is often given as an excuse for why, when we teach them about the past, we teach children almost exclusively about the lives of men. 

Much akin to the mindset of our larger society, a recent study found that female characters in primary school textbooks in the UK were portrayed mainly as mothers and housewives whilst male characters were identified as breadwinners.

What about gender equality?

Thirty years of language and grammar textbook studies in countries including Germany, the USA, Australia, and Spain have found that men far outnumber women in example sentences. A US study of eighteen widely used high school history textbooks published between 1960 and 1990 found that pictures of named men outnumber pictures of named women by a ratio of about 18 to 100 and that only 9% names in the indexes were women.

2017 analysis of ten introductory political science textbooks found that an average of only 10.8% pages per text referenced women. The same level of bias has been found in analyses of Armenian, Malawian, Pakistani, Taiwanese, South African, and Russian textbooks.

In the context of India

Coming back to the Indian context, a 2017 study conducted amongst 200 secondary school students and 20 teachers from different secondary schools of Malappuram district in Kerala to explore students’ perceptions about gender bias in the school curriculum. The first question was related to the teachers’ classroom instruction, i.e. whether the teachers give equal attention to sharing men’s and women’s life experiences while transacting content in the classrooms.

Results showed that 62% of the students disagreed with the question because most teachers were unaware of gender equality while presenting the content in classrooms. In group activities, especially in debates, 52% of students accepted that teachers encouraged boys in debates and discussions, hence boys tried to dominate over girls thereby girls got little attention in classroom activities.

Gender bias through school activities

Some research findings are also consistent with the point that boys try to dominate classroom activities and enjoy scientific experiments more than girls (Jacobi, 1991; Francis, 2000). 67% of students agreed that teachers selected boys as leaders in group activities rather than girls. Consistent studies also claim that girls are more conscientious and present a higher standard of work than boys (Barber, 1996). Hence it was found that school, in general, reinforces gender bias and discriminatory practices against girls through such activities.

Most of the research in this area shows that instructional materials were dominated by the stories, images, examples, voices of men than women. In 1997, Erinosho analyzed 76 science textbooks and reported a great disparity in gender representation in Nigeria. Of the 2995 pictorial illustrations, 63.2% were those of males while a mere 36.8% were those of females. Of the total of 13,506 generic words (noun/pronoun) found in the textbooks, (10211) 75.6% were male and (3296) 24.4% were female.

The gap between men and women starts from the school syllabus 

As you can see through the above examples, most of recorded human history is one big data gap. Starting with the theory of Man the Hunter, the chroniclers of the past have left little space for women’s role in the evolution of humanity, whether cultural or biological. Instead, the lives of men have taken to represent those of humans overall. The history of humanity. The history of art, literature, and music.

The history of evolution itself all have been presented to us as objective facts. But the reality is that these facts have been lying to us and have been distorted by a failure to account for half of humanity. This failure has led to gaps in the data. A corruption in what we know about ourselves and what we are teaching our children.

This gender bias in the curriculum doesn’t end here. It has deep implications thereafter, as it makes way for brilliance bias to emerge in the minds of our students. We teach brilliance bias to our students from an early age. A recent US study found that when girls start primary school at the age of five, they are as likely as five-year-old boys to think women could be “really smart”.

But by the time they turn six, things change dramatically and they start doubting their gender so much that they start limiting themselves. If a game is intended for smart children, five-year-old girls are as likely to play it as five-year-old boys, but six-year-old girls are suddenly disinterested.

Schools are teaching little girls that brilliance doesn’t belong to them. No wonder by the time they start filling out university forms, students are primed to see their female teachers as less qualified. Schools are also teaching brilliance bias to boys.

The result of this gender bias

The results of the draw a scientist test, like the one I conducted in my classroom are more complicated and give strong evidence that data gaps in school curricula are teaching children biases. When children start school they draw roughly equal percentages of male and female scientists, across boys and girls. By the time they are seven, male scientists significantly outnumber female scientists.

By the age of 14, they are drawing four times as many male scientists as female scientists. So although more female scientists are being drawn, much of the increase has been in younger children before the education system teaches them data-gap informed gender biases.

This discrepancy may shed some light on the 2016 study which found that while female students ranked their peers according to their actual ability, male biology students consistently ranked their male peers as more intelligent than better-performing female students.

What can be done?

Brilliance bias doesn’t only lead to student mis-evaluating their teachers or each other, there is also evidence that teachers are mis-evaluating their students. Common stereotypes associate high-level intellectual ability (brilliance, genius, etc.) with men more than women. These stereotypes discourage women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers; that is, women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance (such as physics and philosophy.)

Now when it comes to the bodies that set curricula, another alarming trend can be observed. Many Teacher Education Institutes (TEIs) around the world, which set curricula, that is; teaching diplomas, show a worrying shortcoming regarding issues of gender equality.

For instance, students who prove being prepared to become school teachers are taught on education theories, the psychology of learning, teaching methodologies, and class management, among others, and one or two practical courses.

Gender equality issues must be a part of the curriculum

There is no highlight on gender equality-related issues in their training. Even courses on curriculum design ignore these issues. This omission is highly problematic and should be addressed by curriculum designers of TEIs. Gender equality issues must be a part of the curriculum to help future teachers to be more sensitive about gender equality issues. Thus when they become teachers, they can become agents of change in their schools.

In the end, how can we expect our young girls and boys to thrive in an inherently biased system! As we move towards redesigning our instructional modules, and strategies post this pandemic, I hope we all take concrete steps collectively to enable the creation of inclusive learning environments for our children!

Picture Credits – Nil Battey Sannata (2016)

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Currently working as a Fellow with Teach For India, Roopala is extremely passionate about exploring

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