We need gender-sensitive education across the global education sector

Rukky Otive-Igbuzor

Most of us have at some point in our lives formed stereotypes about a particular gender, whether consciously or subconsciously. Our education system has played a huge part in causing us to form these stereotypes. It has been shown that “there is a ‘hidden curriculum’, which transmits unconsciously and implicitly gender bias” in schools.[1] I had a personal experience of this over fifteen years ago when I was in nursery school. One of the questions on my test was: Who cooks the food at home? A. Mum B. Dad. (Let’s ignore how ridiculous it is that this was actually a question on a test). I didn’t choose A or B; instead, I wrote down the name of the person, which was neither my mum nor my dad, who cooked the food in my home. But of course, that was not the answer they were looking for; the right answer was A – Mum. From such an early age, I was being taught that certain roles belong to certain genders.

Today, the way in which our schools cause us to form gender stereotypes might be more implicit. A classic example is in our use of language. Most of us have gotten used to using “he” as the standard for a hypothetical person. In my first year at university, I was shocked to see “she” being used to refer to a hypothetical person for the first time in my Public Law textbook. But why should it not shock us in the same way when we see “he” being used as the standard? Mary Beard has been able to illustrate how such male-dominant language contributes to the presumption that women do not belong in positions of power and status:

If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president or – to move into the knowledge economy – a professor, what most of us see if not a woman. And that is just as true even if you are a woman professor: the cultural stereotype is so strong [even] at the level of those close-your-eyes fantasies.[2]

The powerful nature of such cultural stereotypes was demonstrated during one of my volunteering experiences, when I drafted a letter for a client and referred to a psychologist whose gender I did not know by using “he”. I did not realise that I had written “he” until I went back to proofread the letter – I had subconsciously assumed that the psychologist was a man. Even though since coming to university, I have made a conscious effort to use gender-inclusive language in my writing, the lessons of gender that I learnt from schools and the wider society while growing up still affect me subconsciously. In that moment, I understood what Chimamanda Adichie meant when she said, “I am trying to unlearn many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up”.[3]

These examples seem trivial, but cumulatively they contribute, in an ever so subtle way, to gender inequality in society. Not only does society view women as subordinate, but many women also start to internalise this feeling subconsciously. I have had discussions with young girls who said that, hypothetically speaking, they would choose to be the Governor of a state rather than the President of a country. The reason they gave for this choice was that they would not want to overshadow their husbands. Even at the level of their imagination, where there are no physical or practical limits to their ambition, they still felt restricted because of their gender. This is the reality for many girls, who are implicitly groomed to stifle their ambition and aim for lower standards of success than their male counterparts. This reinforces Adichie’s point that society teaches girls:

‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man…’[4]

So how can we address this issue? For starters, we need to increase gender-sensitive education across the global education sector. This is especially pertinent in developing countries. It is not enough to ensure that different genders are represented in schools; we must also ensure that the content of the education that the students receive is gender sensitive. There are numerous ways to achieve this; I mention just three below.

Firstly, we must use gender-inclusive language and encourage gender-inclusive writing in schools. It has been recognised that language “plays a central role in human cognition and behavior [and] is one of the most common mechanisms by which gender is constructed and reinforced”.[5] The use of male-dominant language is therefore likely to influence our attitudes and behaviours in a way that is detrimental to other genders. If we stop using “he” as the standard for a hypothetical person, it can have a powerful effect in making us stop seeing one gender as dominant, thereby reducing gender discrimination. The National Council of Teachers of English recommends:

Unless the gender of a singular personal antecedent is otherwise specified, use the gender-neutral singular pronouns they, them, their, and theirs.[6]

Secondly, we must ensure that the curriculum explicitly challenges discrimination based on gender stereotypes in society. This involves teaching students about the concepts of gender and gender equality, exposing them to a range of gender identities, and encouraging them to challenge conventional gender stereotypes. Instead of teaching young students that certain roles belong to certain genders (as was being done very explicitly in my nursery school), we should encourage children to follow their passion and maximise their potential, regardless of their gender.

Finally, we must ensure that teachers and other staff in schools undergo mandatory training on gender sensitivity. Even if the curriculum is gender-sensitive, the attitudes and remarks of teachers can still be discriminatory. I have heard stories of teachers refusing to appoint girls as class monitors because of the belief that girls are unfit for leadership. Such sexist attitudes might not always be explicit, but can nevertheless have a huge impact on a student’s self-esteem, especially at the formative years. Students therefore require gender-sensitive teachers who treat them equally regardless of their gender and encourage them to fully utilise their skills.

Although these are little steps, they can have a powerful cumulative effect. By ensuring that students receive gender-sensitive education, we can change the societal perception that the male gender is superior or more dominant. It is hoped that this will move us closer to the goal of gender equality.

[1] Baltic Gender (n.d.). Tools and Resources on Gender-Sensitive Teaching Methods in Higher Education, p1. [online] Available at: http://oceanrep.geomar.de/41854/1/Online%20Material_final_2019.pdf

[2] Mary Beard (2017). Women & Power: A Manifesto. London: Profile Books Ltd, p53

[3] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014). We Should all be Feminists. [ebook] Great Britain: Fourth Estate, p37

[4] Ibid, p27

[5] NCTE (2018). Statement on Gender and Language. [online] Available at https://ncte.org/statement/genderfairuseoflang/ [Accessed 10 Jan 2020]

[6] Ibid

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