Sociologists and feminists have long argued that most educational curriculums are major sources of gender socialization. Various subjects are regarded as either ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. For example, STEM (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) are generally tilted to the masculine side — with more males pursuing them and more females being discouraged to pursue the same. Young women who want to pursue a STEM-oriented career is seen as doing something unconventional and may even face hurdles to enter it because of social stigma. In a similar manner, the arts and literature subjects are seen as ‘feminine’ subjects — with more girls and women who are both encouraged and expected to be more artistically inclined than their male counterparts.
This social gendering isn’t limited to subjects but is also prevalent within the framework of textbooks and learning material. According to research conducted by The Hindu, many gender-based stereotypes can be found in the NCERT syllabi books. For instance, “in the class five environmental studies textbook, soldiers, doctors and officials are depicted as men while women are relegated to cooking and cleaning tasks. Another such example was found in a Turkish textbook, wherein a girl is pictured dreaming about her wedding day whereas a boy is seen imagining himself to be a doctor. Needless to say, such stereotypes are not only restrictive and harmful but also degrading. And because gender bias is rife in textbooks around the world, it undermines girls’ motivation and achievement in schools.
Another worrying aspect about textbooks and curriculum, is that most of them do not incorporate the cultures, heritages, and stories of many ethnic backgrounds, and therefore are unable to reflect the rich multiculturalism we see in the world. A missing intersectional feminist perspective may have a deleterious effect on the diversity of experience that informs what we learn and internalize. Girls in elementary, junior, and high school simply aren’t seeing themselves in their class work because history often ignores or erases ‘herstories’ and excludes women’s narratives and achievements. Women’s history courses are traditionally taught at the college level, but most high schools do not offer courses like it. Including women and minorities in resources and curricula should not be done just to be seen as “contributing” characters in history, but rather as vital to the study of the subject — in gaining different perspectives that are intersectional and representative. Isn’t it time that we recognized the achievements, experiences, and lives of all people, not just a small segment of the population that happens to have been and continue to be the most privileged?
In wake of all of these harsh and bitter realities, it is very easy to lose hope and become despaired. But I strongly believe every cloud has a silver lining and Sweden’s growing gender-neutral pedagogy is testimony to that. Stockholm’s school libraries hold children’s books that show different types of protagonists and a diversity of family models (including but not limiting to those with single parents and same-sex parents). One of the titles is Kivi and Monsterdog, whose protagonist, Kivi, is a child of unspecified gender. The idea is to present a more diverse and realistic image of the world we live in to kids and to avoid representations that reproduce gender stereotypes.
Schools in Sweden also aim to use gender-neutral language, to avoid gendering whenever it is not necessary. Instead of using “hon” (Swedish for she) and “han” (Swedish for he), “hen” (a genderless alternative) is one of many ways to refer to children. A large part of the success of the Scandinavian approach to gender equality and gender mainstreaming might lie in its willingness to question and act to change everyone’s role in imposing gender expectations.
Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from Sweden’s teaching practices and take a page out of their book, to make our societies and communities less patriarchal and more inclusive!