Representation as important as participation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 30, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 30, 2018


Representation as important as participation

Gender Stereotypes in Malaysian, Indonesian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi school textbooks

Female education is widely believed to benefit society through both economic and non-economic channels. However, the gender gap in education has excessively focused (and bettered) on school enrolment, while ignoring what is happening within the schooling process.

In the last two decades, the Education for All (EFA) movement has had great success in bringing girls to school and closing the gender gap in enrolment. According to their latest report, the number of countries with 0.97-1.03 score in gender parity index at primary level has increased from 83 countries to 104 countries. The index for South Asian countries increased from 0.83 to 1.0 between 1999 and 2012 at the primary level. In contrast, gender bias in textbooks remains one of the “hardest to budge rocks in the road to gender equality in education” and is geographically more widespread than the gender gap in school enrolment. The UN Girls Education Initiatives (UNGEI) in their 10th anniversary report in 2010 mentioned gender stereotypes in textbooks as one of the five challenges towards gender equality in education. Yet, compared to other school-specific drivers of gender inequality, textbook content is frequently overlooked in the policy debate.

Around the world, students spend a majority of their classroom time (80-95 percent) on textbooks and teachers rely mostly on textbooks for delivering, organising and assigning homework. Research on classroom practices in developing countries shows that teachers barely challenge textbook stereotypes and instead reproduce them, thereby only propagating the problem while students passively receive what they are taught.

Textbooks, therefore, play a significant role in determining how students ought to perceive a particular event and develop attitudes towards particular groups, genders and other aspects of life. Textbook stereotypes is an almost invisible obstacle to equality in education and realising the full potential of girls. It affects girls' school performance, career choice and self-esteem. Yet, a UNESCO funded study shows that gender stereotypes are widespread in countries across the globe, whether they are ideologically progressive or conservative, economically developed or developing, geographically in the East or in the West.

For instance in America, MacCabee et al (2011), using children's books from the years 1901-2000 found that males are in the book titles twice as much as females, and are the central characters of the stories 1.6 times more than females. Textbooks in Syria were found to portray males engaging in a bustling world while conditioning females to stay in the background in servitude, often derogated and victimised. Likewise in Iran, female exclusion and misrepresentation is common in textbooks.

On the other hand, textbook contents are rife with male chauvinism. Primary school textbooks were found to over-represent males in all categories, the most stereotyped of which was professional occupations in China. Likewise, our review of the secondary literatures from popular journal sites confirm similar gender stereotypes in textbooks used in Germany, Greece, Spain, Norway, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Turkey, Palestine, Nigeria and many other countries.

In South and South-East Asia, women face a multitude of social and economic problems. Apart from discrimination, a reason women do not do well in terms of labour market participation is that they lack human capital. Therefore, schooling matters significantly for the labour market performance of women. Conversely, patriarchal customs and social norms continue to affect gender roles through socialisation processes at school and at home. A gender-insensitive school curriculum may particularly undermine the important role of education in addressing the existing sources of gender inequality in society.

However, countries in the South and South-East differ notably in a number of socio-economic as well as women development indicators. But it has been shown that gender stereotypes in the textbook are ubiquitous irrespective of the region and this trend is rife in the textbooks in all countries. Now the question is: To what extent does the gender stereotype exist in the textbook and does it vary across countries in South and South-East Asia?

To answer these questions, we conducted a quantitative content analysis to examine the presence of gender stereotypes in school textbooks in four countries in South and South-East Asia—Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These countries were chosen because they are at different stages of socio-economic development and vary significantly in terms of progress in female schooling despite their patriarchal social structure. The sample countries also have a predominantly Muslim population, so an analysis of these countries can shed additional light on the relatively higher gender inequality in Muslim countries in education and social indicators. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first comparative study on gender stereotypes in school textbooks of these four major Muslim countries.

Our primary study population of interest is secondary school English language textbooks used in the ninth grade in the academic year of 2015. We analysed a total of 713 pages based on the 21 identified categories to recognise gender exclusion and quality of representation. Our analysis confirms a pro-male bias in textbooks: the aggregate female share is 40.4 percent in textual and pictorial indicators combined. Still, systematic under representation of females is evident regardless of whether we look at the text or pictures. Moreover, female characters were mostly associated with traditional and low-wage occupations as well as more passive personality traits.

The extent of stereotypes found in the textbooks, however, varies across countries. Overall, the proportion of female to male characters (text and pictures combined) is balanced in Malaysia and Indonesia (44.4 percent and 44.1 percent respectively) while this share is only 24.4 percent and 37.3 percent in Pakistani and Bangladeshi textbooks respectively. The Pakistani textbook consistently ranks below their Malaysian, Indonesian, and Bangladeshi counterparts in almost all gender indicators.

Using province, subject and grade specific textbooks, we further find that the poor ranking of the Pakistani textbook, in comparison to the other study countries is not a result of the specific textbook used in our primary analysis. Rather, the finding of under representation of women in Pakistani textbooks, in terms of quality and quantity, is dependent on the selection of province-, grade- and subject-specific textbooks as well as the range and type of categories used.             


Referring to the predominant nature of male ascendancy in textbooks around the world, sociologist R Blumbergsaid, “If aliens beamed onto Earth and read our school textbooks, they wouldn't have a clue about what women contribute to our society.” In contrast, the pace of reform is 'snail-like' and greater gender equality in education is often ignored in policy debates compared to other school-specific inputs. In our study, we found a high degree of gender stereotypes in the form of 'exclusion' and 'misrepresentation' in all the sample textbooks of four Asian Muslim countries.

Gender bias in textbooks is a global concern for educators today and it is evident in both countries that achieved gender parity in access to schooling (e.g. Bangladesh, India) as well as those who are yet to catch up (e.g. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria etc.). That indicates that the global reform agenda for gender equality in education has overlooked the issue of bias in the schooling process, even in countries that have succeeded in mobilising political support in favor of women's development (e.g. Malaysia). In this regard, the Global Monitoring Report 2015 rightly stressed the need to revise textbook content and restore gender balance as well as encourage children to question gender stereotypes in society.

Therefore, the reform for gender equality in education needs to go hand in hand with within-school reforms as well as reforms outside school gender relations (in the family, workplace and in socio-political spheres). One-dimensional reform—either in the schooling process or outside—in the long run will fail to ensure gender equality in education and also empowerment of women through education.

M Niaz Asadullah is a professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Malaya and Kazi Md Mukitul Islam is a Press & Political Officer, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Dhaka.

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