Friday, September 25, 2009

Science, Social Studies, and Gender Stereotypes: Gender Bias in School Textbooks

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated by a process too complex to be explained by only one factor, but intuitively, school textbooks are powerful tools of socialization. If gender bias does exist in school textbooks, eradicating it probably won’t lead to the complete destruction of gender inequality in this country, but it would be a start.

A paper prepared for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2007 discusses the recent history of gender bias in textbooks across the globe and in the United States. I will focus on the United States in this post not only for the sake of brevity, but also because as American citizens, we can make a more immediate impact locally.

Beginning on page 12, the UNESCO report discusses a 1971 content analysis of thirty of the then newest primary school textbooks adopted or recommended for use in second to sixth grade California schools. The results of the analysis do not paint a pretty picture. 75 percent of the main characters were male, less than 20 percent of the story space of the average book was devoted to the female sex, and only 15 percent of the illustrations were devoted to girls or women. In addition, female characters were not held in a positive light. One book depicted Madame Curie as "a mere helpmate for her husband’s projects, and in the illustration, she is shown peeping over her husband’s shoulder while he engages a male colleague in serious dialogue.”

The UNESCO report concludes that, thanks in large part to the feminist movement and the passage of Title IX, the intensity of gender bias is in fact diminishing, in that the most egregious and blatant examples of sexism seem to have disappeared or been muted. But, recent content analyses of textbooks that measure the proportion of materials involving women and girls have found only modest rates of improvement. Across the educational spectrum, American textbooks still focus on females less than males.

So today, girls no longer have to endure textbooks informing them that “…men will have to know about nuclear power. And girls will be needed to work as stewardesses on the giant submarines.” (page 14 of the UNESCO report) Yet bias still remains, and I have to admit I am somewhat surprised by that. Although I disagree with Kingsley R. Browne, it is at least arguable that the “glass ceiling” persists because women do not make the same kinds of human-capital investments and occupational choices as men, and the reason they do not is because of biological differences in personality and temperament. But when it comes to textbooks, what justification for gender disparity could there be? Textbooks are not the product of biological evolution, socialization, or any interplay between the two, at least not directly. Textbooks are adopted through democratic processes. In California, elected officials and appointed members of the public are responsible for the development of the curriculum. As constituents, we can exert pressure on our elected officials not to adopt textbooks that are unfairly geared more toward boys. This seems like a worthy and attainable goal. Who wouldn’t want to make school a textbooks gender equal? It seems so straightforward- we should pressure publishers to develop materials that represent females as often as males, depict each sex engaging in a wide range of activities, and show that each sex can possess a broad spectrum of traits and abilities. Regardless of what may or not be true about the nature component of our behavior, shouldn’t the nurture component stress equality?

Unfortunately, eliminating gender discrimination in school textbooks will not be easy simply because textbook adoption is government controlled. Although curriculum development is currently handled at the state level, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty proposing, among many other things, the elimination of gender stereotypes in school textbooks. 185 nations have ratified the treaty, but the United States is not one of them. At least one prominent critic of the CEDAW does not appear to be fighting fairly, describing the feminist model (and the CEDAW following that model) thusly: “break up the family, force women into the workforce, and send kids to daycare.” Such dishonest representations are tough to combat. And if we can't join nearly every other country on Earth in a treaty to eliminate gender bias, maybe there is little hope for success in a state by state effort. But if we can’t eliminate gender inequality in a domain where the public has a fair amount political sway, what chance do we have in eliminating it in other contexts, like the marketplace? Pardon the cliché, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Ultimately, with this blogpost, I am trying to argue that school textbooks are still an important battleground. Maybe Amy no longer has to be the stewardess while Jake gets to be the captain, but why should Jake still be the star of the show?

1 comment:

samina hitch said...

I agree that textbooks and public education curriculum are a very important battleground for not only eliminating gender discrimination at an early age, but also for increasing consciousness of the flexibility of knowledge. All too often children (and adults) are educated to trust what is in textbooks (and research) as distinct, unargued truth. In my case, it was not until I was in college taking courses on knowledge construction when I understood that authors nearly always impose their own bias -- even down to language choice. This blog post reminds me of the Emily Martin article, "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science had Constructed a Romance Based on Male-Female Roles," [] where she describes the ways in which scientists have created a scientific fairy tale by consistently using descriptors like "passive" to describe the egg who "waits" like a damsel in distress, while words like "strong" and "survivors" describe sperm who "assault," "thrust forward" and "penetrate" the egg. In reality, Martin argues, the egg plays an active role in the biological process of conception. Martin suggests that even science has its bias, and often it can simply be linked to the experiences and understandings of the author/researcher/scientists. Similarly, in a gender and archeology course I took in college, we often discussed the assumptions made by archaeologists, and how those assumptions mark our written understanding of history. For example, if we find multiple small sculptures of women, an archeologist may assume them to be deities or even dolls-- yet when we find small sculptures of men, an archaeologist may assume them to be worshipped gods -- based on his or her own beliefs and assumptions. In short, even our "knowledge" is colored, down to the core of seemingly cut-and-dry objective fields such as science and archaeology.

Unfortunately, getting the word out is the most difficult part. I can see how it would be difficult to persuade a government official to change the language surrounding the sperm and egg, and also to convince them that it ultimately can subliminally inherit itself into a person's consciousness and self-awareness. Maybe textbooks are not the only problem, but our collective trust in knowledge as truth -- and the fear of what will happen when we accept that those truths are often non-objective observations which are amorphous at best.