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.
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.
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.