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What Happens When Kids Realise Their Schools And Textbooks Are Gender Biased?

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

It all started off as a little experiment in my drawing class on a Saturday, long before our life was halted by the prevailing pandemic. 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 fourth-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 realised what had happened, my classroom went abuzz with discussions. The girls were especially shocked to realise that they had been operating unintentionally with a bias against their own 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 prevails in our classrooms.

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 realised 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 realised that this problem wasn’t merely limited to students’ mindset or the words in some textbooks. 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 corrective action to be taken. This is a worrying state, for it is the curriculum that shapes much of the school day.

Students spend 80% to 95% of their classroom time with curricular materials, including textbooks, and we teachers make these books 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 school curriculum from around the world indicate that females are underrepresented and 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, despite the fact that 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 against 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.

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.

Over 30 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 18 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. A 2017 analysis of 10 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.

school girls

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 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. 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 schools, in general, reinforce 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 analysed 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, (10,211) 75.6% were male, and (3,296) 24.4% were female.

What Are The Implications Of Gender Bias in Schools?

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 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 children who are really really smart, 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 also teach brilliance bias to boys.

The results of the draw a scientist test, like the one I conducted in my classroom, are actually 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 gender biases informed by data gaps. 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).

In the end, how can we expect our young girls and boys to thrive in a system that is inherently biased? At the onset of the NEP, as we move towards redesigning our instructional modules and strategies post the pandemic, I hope we all take concrete steps collectively to enable the creation of inclusive learning environments for our children.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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