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The invisible obstacle to educational equality: gender bias in textbooks

Abstract

Gender bias in textbooks (GBIT) is a low-profile education issue, given the 72,000,000 children who still have no access to schooling, but this article argues that GBIT is: (1) an important, (2) near-universal, (3) remarkably uniform, (4) quite persistent but (5) virtually invisible obstacle on the road to gender equality in education—an obstacle camouflaged by taken-for-granted stereotypes about gender roles. Specifically, GBIT: (1) is important because (a) textbooks occupy ~80% of classroom time, and (b) it may contribute to lowering girls’ achievements, especially in weak schools in poor countries; (2) has been found worldwide to varying degrees (except, perhaps, Sweden in recent years); (3) involves nearly identical patterns of under-representation of females, plus stereotypes of both genders’ occupational and household roles that overwhelmingly underplay women’s rising worldly importance; (4) is decreasing very slowly, according to “second generation” re-studies; and (5) remains obscured by the “hidden-in-plain-sight” system of gender stratification and roles. Case studies from Syria, India, Romania, China and the US document these points. Other case studies from Sweden and Latin America describe government initiatives to reduce GBIT, with differing levels of success. Totally revising textbooks (and curricula) to eliminate this bias is quite unlikely, partly because it is very costly. The article concludes by presenting inexpensive alternate methods that can combat GBIT.

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Notes

  1. In addition to a greater gender gap in education (see Tables 1 and 2), India has one of the world’s most skewed sex ratios, an increasingly used indicator of gender discrimination (Sen 1990, 2001; Blumberg and Holian 2004): only 92.7 women per 100 men. This compares to 105–106 women to 100 men in developed industrial countries, and even 102 women to 100 men in Sub-Saharan Africa (where women are valued as farmers; they raise up to 80% of locally grown food crops (Saito and Weidemann 1990)).

  2. Especially after the Japanese invasion.

  3. Some of the stereotyping of female and male gender roles in the family may have to do with the almost “sacred” quality of the family unit in school textbooks around the world; hence the resultant “traditionalistic” portrayals.

  4. New US issues that have “marginalized gender equity initiatives” (Hahn et al. 2007, p. 337) include: (1) The “high-stakes testing movement” [These are new standardized tests with heavy penalties to schools (loss of funding) and students (denial of diplomas) for failing scores. Often, classroom time tilts toward an urgent race to get pupils passing scores]; (2) The “attention to multiculturalism [that] has overshadowed [or subsumed] gender”; (3) The commonly held belief that gender equity has been realized; and (4) The return of the “boy problem in education” [e.g., poorer reading performance, lower high school graduation rates, declining enrollments in post-secondary education, etc.] (ibid.; see also Klein et al. 2007).

  5. Millennium Development Goal 3 is to “promote gender equality and empower women,” and its Target for monitoring progress is the same as EFA Goal 5.

  6. Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

  7. Blumberg (2007) includes a summary of the seven forms as an appendix.

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Correspondence to Rae Lesser Blumberg.

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This is a condensed, edited version of a Background Paper for the 2008 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Education for All by 2015—Will we make it? (Paris: UNESCO 2008). That report, “Gender Bias in Textbooks: A Hidden Obstacle on the Road to Gender Equality in Education”, with a large, comprehensive bibliography, is available online at: unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001555/155509e.pdf. I wish to express my appreciation and gratitude for the excellent assistance of Meghan O’Leary, M.A., University of Virginia, who worked on the 2008 Global Monitoring Report Background Paper on which this article is based, and Diana Bowen, M.A., University of Virginia, who worked on the present piece.

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Blumberg, R.L. The invisible obstacle to educational equality: gender bias in textbooks. Prospects 38, 345–361 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-009-9086-1

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Keywords

  • Girls’ education
  • Textbooks
  • Gender-bias