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School textbooks are stuffed with gender stereotypes, new study says

Textbooks are the source of information and knowledge, but they teach gender stereotypes as well. This conclusion was made by the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson after carrying out an analysis of gender portrayal in the textbooks and other educational materials. Conducted in collaboration with experts, the study revealed that gender stereotypes could be found even in Music, Geography or Math subject textbooks.

In the course of the study, 32 educational materials for sixth to seventh grades were analyzed. The experts selected materials published no later than 2011. Textbooks or exercise books chosen for the analysis are either being used in schools now or will be used in the near future.

"The florist woman has tulips and daffodils (...), the farmer brought tomatoes to the market, (...) John spent all week fishing, (...) dad painted the fence, (...), mother decided to make a gingerbread cake with bananas, (...) dad decided to buy a car,” – that’s how conditional tasks begin in Math textbooks.

According to the experts, such tasks are based on stereotypical assumptions about the hobbies and interests of girls and boys: women’s role is linked activities that include flowers and pots, while men are associated with technical domestic work, fishing, cars, entrepreneurship.

Especially large gaps in gender depiction were noticed in one of the Catholic textbooks on Religion subject. The main characters of this particular textbook are mostly men. Female characters were included in fewer than one fifth of the stories.

Part of the textbooks for Ethics class often portrays female characters as secondary, additional characters to the main male characters, for example, as those who care for and comforts men. Women there are mostly without names and do not have characteristics that would define their identities.

The experts found that some stories that include female characters focus on the topic of their appearance. For instance, one textbook presents a story about a girl who is dissatisfied with her appearance and examines herself in a mirror. Another story is about a girl who would like to have a set of beauty products. Other stories tell readers about the girl who doesn’t want to participate in youth gatherings because she is not pretty enough; girls talk about the importance of dressing up for the theater; a mother places a mirror in front of her angry daughter so that she could see how her angry face expression will eventually distort her face.

As for male characters, it is apparent that the variety of roles assigned to men is greater: they play sports, are interested in various things, disobey the rules, advise wisely, travel, behave decently, and so on. In Ethics textbooks, male characters disproportionately engage in public activities such as traveling, buying and selling, leading a country, or running activities.

According to the experts, “since the content of textbooks usually reflects the cultural environment, it is not surprising that they can also impose a very popular stereotype that a man should be “tough”, and therefore not to show his emotions. The man should not to be sad or be afraid of something”. Experts provide quotes from Ethics textbooks as obvious examples: “A man must know how to defend himself, and a man has to take responsibility for his actions”, "Don’t be angry at me Aliukas. And cut crying. Be a man. I say this to him, knowing he suffered due my fault”.

In the textbook on Natural Sciences there is such a task: "What amount of lifting force should be used by muscles of a 40 kilograms weighting boy to pull his body to the crossbar?" According to experts, the tasks formulated this way could strengthen the masculinist attitudes that "real" men must necessarily have physical endurance, strength and be athletic.

In another textbook for Ethics class, analyzing the theme of the Homeland, the following idea is provided: "Homeland is the world of our spirit, the language of our ancestors, religion. The moral and intellectual content is transmitted not only by the graves of ancestors or the face of beloved woman, but also through the tears of our mother or restrained hug by the father.” According to the authors of the study, this part of the text explains the importance of the Homeland, but when examining the topic, stereotypical gender characteristics may remain unnoticed, thus strengthening the perceptions of mother’s emotionality and father’s restraint. "In such cases, it is important to pay attention to gender roles and, in the context of the topic, to talk about the diversity of gender roles of mothers and fathers," experts suggest.

When analyzing textbooks on Geography, researchers noticed that the materials mainly describe the achievements of men, while the achievements of women remain invisible. The Geography class textbooks provide such examples of men’s achievements as the conquests of Alexander the Great, the journeys of Christopher Columbus, Vasco Da Gama and other male explorers. In the example of Christopher Columbus's journey, the fact that his expedition was funded by the Queen of Spain is mentioned as an insignificant detail. This is the one and only example of the influence of women on the exploration of the world presented in the Geography textbook.

The Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson Agneta Skardžiuvienė assessed the results of the study and emphasized that textbooks and other educational class materials should be written with particular care, as the stereotypical views on gender – either open or hidden – have significant impact on students, their perception of the roles of women and men.

"Information in the textbooks is often perceived by pupils as a reliable source of knowledge, therefore, misleading gender stereotypes can easily affect students. Stereotypes presented in the educational materials undoubtedly contribute to gender inequality in our society,” says Skardžiuvienė.

The entire study in Lithuanian is accessible by clicking this link.

Agneta Skardžiuvienė

Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson of the Republic of Lithuania

Curriculum Vitae