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?