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Countering Gender Bias: "Boys have trucks - Girls have dolls"

Mayil the female protagonist challenging gender roles in her diary

In my textbooks I learned that only men
are kings and soldiers.
Till I read a book in which famous,
queens ruled and fought against enemies.
In my textbooks I learned that only men
are doctors.
When I went to a doctor I saw that
she was a woman.
In my textbook I learned that only men
do farming in my country,
until, on a train journey I saw women
working in the fields.
I have learned that I have a lot to learn by seeing.

– Pooja, Ramya, Anuj, Utkarsh, Students of Class VII, Baroda

(National Focus Group on Gender Issues in Education 2006)

I came across the above observation in relation to one of my projects in the programme of Gender Studies when I was preparing a report on gender bias in Indian textbooks. The depiction of unbalanced gender roles and the social perception of distinction between the private vs. public domains are predominant in textbooks as well as in the mode of teaching by the parents. Rhymes, legends and everyday examples portray men as active and women as passive. Gender disparity is also rooted in the nursery rhymes that project stereotypical behavior with most of the superheroes as males. English rhymes also reflect the same sexist stereotype where a pretty fair-complexioned girl receives admiration for beauty and her prettiness is the real accomplishment in comparison with an intelligent smart boy.
Across the world, textbooks have an impact far beyond the immediate confines of school, they are basic vehicles of socialization which inculcates normative values. The training manual for facilitators of Gender Equality Movement in Schools (published by ICRW, 2011) highlights that gender education starts with building gender awareness. This means recognizing the negative impacts of gender stereotypes and addressing the inequalities that arise from them. By reducing gender stereotypes, gender education assists children in building a genuine civic equality where women and men live in relationships built on cooperation and mutual respect. The outcome of gender education for girls is greater self-confidence, assertiveness, independence and engagement in the public sphere.
Firoz Bakht Ahmed (2006) in his report “Male Bias in School Texts”, published in The Tribune comments on various ways of reinforcing sexist stereotypes, where a primary school textbook depicts daddy as the king of the family and mummy as a caring deputy, thereby perpetuating the gender bias by assigning traditional roles to "macho" men and "gentle" women. Meera Srinivasan in The Hindu (August 11, 2010) argues that textbooks need to allow students to rethink and challenge existing gender stereotypes. It quotes one incident which occurred in the classroom where the teacher was discussing great scientists, suddenly one child of VIth grade asked her, ‘weren't there female scientists? How come you don't tell us about them'?” It immediately struck the teacher how children were very closely following the content discussed in the class. The teacher later noted “Another day, we had a debate on who should cook at home. It was very refreshing to hear some boys say they would love to”.

Bengali rhyme books are worth considering in this regard where imagery and expressions are essentially stereotyped. Women are often portrayed as housewives while men are shown as public employees, travelers, musicians, artists, sculptors, soldiers, engineers, scientists, inventors and doctors. Often boys are rebuked for their "girlish" behaviour and advised to act as ‘birpurush’ (valiant, brave, courageous and chivalrous heroes). Marriage plays a pivotal role in the poems which are replete with the images of palanquins or marriage ceremony and the girl is advised about how to behave decently and adjust with in-laws. In fairy tales demons use to kidnap princess and princes keep fighting to rescue and win her. Thus textbooks justify girls as yielding, submissive, docile, immersed in household chores, deprived of fun, frolic, autonomy and agency while boys are good hunters, anglers, chariot riders and drivers, explorers, protectors, fearless and playful.

Reflections of such stereotypes are easily available in the society.

In Indian context marriage and education are often interlinked. For the poor and disadvantaged group educating a girl means wastage of money and time. It is rather easier to marry her off because she cannot earn like a "man". But this observation is not limited to a certain section. For example, in the middle class section of the society where I belong to and where the education for girls has become widespread with the popularity of the slogan “an educated mother makes an educated family” (though her self-reliance is overlooked in the process), education comes with some biases, some strings attached. Girls have options to be educated, but choosing a career "like a man" is not mandatory, it is optional. I am happy that my parents always encouraged me for education and career building without paying any heed to my relatives for whom the main concern for a boy is education and job and for a girl "a happy and prosperous arranged marriage within the same caste". Then again, higher education is not deemed to be necessary for girls compared to the shining prospect of marriage. I have listened thousand times from my neighbours and relatives “get married and then you can pursue your education or whatever degrees you want to”. In my hostel life I met many such ambitious girls who were forced or given a choice to marry before jumping for a “time-consuming” degree. Because marriage also brings relief to the parents who are happy to be free from the duty of protection of their girl, as a new man can take over this “social responsibility” as a "guardian". Even though a woman is educated she is not self-reliant, even if she is a working woman she should ask permission from her husband for every small and big things, which are indispensable parts of a “cultured” upbringing.
There is also a general observation prevalent among my own relatives that women are dim-witted compared to boys.

So what matters is the right kind of education which will not consider women as crutches to lean on others but it will make them stronger in participating equally to contribute positively in the social welfare.

I want the right kind of education and a gender sensitive approach

which will not teach to confine women to stereotyped roles

which will not portray men are explorers and women are homemakers

where the rhymes will not reflect the sexist culture

where a woman can choose her own profession without being bound to conform to the gendered division of labour

where educated women will not compromise and submissively accept an abusive marriage

I dream of a world which will not construct women as passive creatures. It will not treat women’s education as an advantage but as compulsory. Gaining knowledge will not be considered fruitful only in the matters of raising educated children but more for the economic empowerment and self-awareness.

Bakht, Firoz Ahmed. 2006. “Male Bias in School Texts.” The Tribune Online Edition. Chandigarh, India (Feb. 26).
Sivashankar, Nithya. 2011, Gender Bender, The Hindu, online edition.
Srinivasan, Meera. 2010. How Textbooks Allow Space for Social Biases, The Hindu, online edition.
Tripathi, Ashish. 2005. The textbook of gender discrimination, Times of India, online edition.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Girls Transform the World Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring girls greater access to education which will transform their lives, their families, and communities. The Girls Transform Campaign elicits insightful content from young women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as women, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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Cali gal Michelle's picture

Thank you for this

Thank you for this interesting viewpoint regarding textbooks within the educational system that are continuing to propagate these stereotypes of gender roles. It has not occurred to me that in re-structuring, building, and expanding educational opportunity for girls that we need to also address the curriculum. And yes, even here in the US, we still sing lullabies and read classic tales to our children that continue this thought of specific gender roles, etc. It is our history that women have been in the home, and men have been working outside the home. But we need to start including gender equality, role reversal, and the like from early on, as our "history" evolves.

Let us Hope together-
aka: Cali gal


Sutanuka Banerjee's picture

I do agree

The invisibilization of women in the public space is a serious issue.

I followed the report on eliminating gender stereotypes in the EU based on Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women on 15 September 1995. It enlisted that:

whereas children are confronted with gender stereotypes at a very young age through role models promoted by television series and programmes, discussions, games, video games and advertisements, study materials and educational programmes, attitudes in schools, the family and society, which influence their perception of how men and women should behave and which have implications for the rest of their lives and their future aspirations

Education and training

P. whereas sexist stereotypes are conveyed both by teachers (willingly or not) and by the educational support material teachers are given;

Q. whereas access to formal primary, secondary and third-level education and the content of the curriculum as taught to girls and boys is a major influencing factor on gender differences and, correspondingly, on choices and access to rights;

R. whereas the notion of equality can be instilled in children at a very young age and an upbringing where equality is acknowledged can teach them to combat gender stereotypes;

S. whereas the stereotypes which still exist with regard to the educational and professional options available to women help to preserve inequalities; whereas education and training continue to transmit gender stereotypes, as women and men often follow traditional education and training paths, and this has serious repercussions on the labour market, limiting career diversification and often placing women in occupations that are less valued and remunerated;

T. whereas in the education process boys and girls are still not encouraged to take an equal interest in all subjects, in particular as regards scientific and technical subjects;

U. whereas, although many European countries do include a gender dimension in their career guidance, this is normally aimed at girls to encourage them to choose careers in technology or science, and there are no initiatives to encourage boys to consider careers in education, health or the humanities;

Labour market

V. whereas the impact of gender stereotypes on education and training has strong implications for the labour market, where women still face both horizontal and vertical segregation

W. whereas gender stereotypes on the labour market still limit women’s access to certain sectors, such as engineering, fire-fighting, manufacturing, construction, carpentry, mechanics, the technical and scientific sectors and new technologies, but also limit men’s access to childcare sectors (midwives, nursery nurses, etc.);

it suggests that the traditional belief that women carry the main responsibility for taking care of the family still persists today, forcing them to take part-time jobs with flexible hours or on a short-term basis, and limiting their opportunities on the labour market and for promotion;

So the right kind of education is important to contest gender roles and social representation



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