Gender in Education: Gender Narratives and How We Can Do Better

Written by Jane Law Lee Bin, edited by Rifqi Faisal and researched by Team MYER.

Last week, MYER gave the bird’s-eye view on the equity scene in Malaysia. Today, we’re going all the way down to the nitty-gritty, starting with how gender narratives are taught in our schools.

Long before we were born, society has already rooted us with social norms that would define what’s considered acceptable and appropriate based on our given gender. These standards are deeply integrated- from the formal and informal structures of our world all the way down to the branch of how we coddle these thoughts in our subconscious. It has also found its way through the social interactions we have in our daily lives.

Gender is a primary frame for social relations, heavily embedded within relations, power, ideologies and institutions. Its systems are deeply hierarchical- an argument that has been furthered by feminist sociologists, proposing that resources, responsibilities, power as well as entitlements are allocated by viewing if the individual is a male or female.

Often go unnoticed, these so-called norms play a crucial role in determining (at most times unequal) access to opportunities for women and men, thus affecting their voice, power and sense of self. The difference one has over the other is important to note as most of us are compelled by the norm to do the opposite of what we’re personally inclined to do.

A 2017 report from The Malay Mail showed that fewer Malaysian women are graduating from the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) due to gender stereotyping- a role not only Malaysia but the rest of the world has been highly guilty of partaking in. These long-standing social and gender norms have interfered with the ability of many talented women to take advantage of great opportunities all because they were taught to believe that ‘STEM was a career made for men’ or that ‘women are not as good as their male counterparts’.

One of the biggest contributors that has helped weave these thoughts can be seen in our flawed education system, unfolding from the pro-malebias textbooks we’ve grown up with and the ones children are still studying today.

A Malaysian study revealed that 66% of the verbs used in textbooks are male-specific. Another study found that textbooks act as primary avenues for young Malaysians to be indoctrinated by sexism beliefs and ideas. From textbooks, we’ve learned that females mostly take up traditional and less prestigious professions. They are primarily introverted and passive. In addition, while men are written to hold higher positions, women are drawn handling mostly domestic as well as indoor labour.

But, those are just examples. They’re not to be taken seriously.

Exactly, there are examples! The pictures we formed in our syllabus may not have harmful intentions but it can bring about how our children will conceptualize gender when they learn to grasp the world a bit better. They will associate housework with women and office jobs with men when it can work vice versa. Unknowingly, they will start to inherit dangerous gender narratives that have been painted in their education simply because it’s what they have been taught since kindergarten.

School books relay not only knowledge but also social values and political ideologies, as well as an understanding of the world and history. These instruments can mould children’s minds powerfully and have a lasting impact. Hence, using the ‘dad-works-mom-cooks’ template is not how we empower young girls. It would tell young boys that girls ‘deserve to be at home’ just because their textbooks told them so. It would develop unhealthy and inaccurate gender perceptions, further promoting gender stereotypes that will lower self-esteem and undermine aspiration among girls.

Thus, the portrayal of women in education should reflect their diverse identities that they may be mothers and caregivers but also wage earners and professionals.

Last year, Malaysians took to social media to point out a problematic infographic that was printed in a Year 3 health and physical education textbook. The illustration, studied by nine-year-olds countrywide, showed that girls should protect their private parts or they will risk being shamed and disliked by their peers while scarring their family’s honour. The graphic also illustrated that girls should wear modestly, not go to quiet places alone and change behind closed doors. (The page has since then been covered up and a correction statement has been issued to schools.)

These type of content taught to children are alarming as it reinforces victim-blaming attitudes when it comes to sexual assault among young girls. It will harbor a dangerous mindset with how children will look at sexual assault cases, thinking that the reason why it happened must be because ‘they went to dark alleys’ or ‘they didn’t dress prim and proper enough’ just as the PJPK textbook suggested.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The peribahasa (Malay proverbs) we learned in primary and secondary schools to polish our karangan (Malay essays) for extra brownie points often have negative connotations to them, especially the ones that are used to describe women. Formed with negative words or coined with an underlying, stereotypical meaning, these proverbs tend to degrade the status of women, calling them ‘blabbermouths’ or ‘ill-mannered’.

A research highlighted that some of the examples include but are not limited to:

  • ada wang abang sayang, tak ada wang abang melayang (meaning a women‟s love is conditional upon the man’s wealth),
  • bagai anak dara sudah berlaki (a young/single maiden who behaves as married woman, often used to address a young woman who is shameless, slothful and shabby),
  • kasihkan anak, tangan-tangankan, kasihkan bini tinggal-tinggalkan (if you love your children, beat and discipline them, if you love your wife, leave her every now and then),
  • seperti anjing yang sudah biasa makan tahi, bagaimana sekalipun diberi makan yang baik, hendak juga memakan tahi (It is difficult to change a woman who is used to her evil ways. Note: Women referred to as dogs which are accustomed to eating faeces)

and many more.

Subversive gender portrayals are also prevalent in our curriculum as seen in primary one English materials.

An analysis conducted indicated that there are more social actions that relate to male than females (64 for male, 56 for female) as demonstrated from the ‘playing’ action. For instance, photos used to depict activities like ‘playing football’ is masculine while ‘skipping’ leans more towards to feminine. Other social action types such as the ‘holding’ action are also employed to indicate gender stereotyping. To give an example, females are drawn to be holding items such as flowers (15.38%), soft toys (30.77%), fruits and presents (15.38%) whereas males are more likely to be seen holding on to a bicycle or (7.69%) a ball.

Another gender stereotyped behavior that can be found in the textbook is a picture that shows girls ‘serving’ food to boys. This act reflects the gentle gesture frequently identified with girls exhibiting femininity. It also further emphasizes the caring nature that is, time after time, represented in female characters. Same goes with another image that paints a mother and her daughter in the kitchen, doing the dishes with no other male characters in sight- another common stereotype forced upon women that they are the ones who are responsible for kitchen duties.

So, where does all of this lead to?

Such narratives fostered in our school systems will end up being slithered into our social interactions- how male students and teachers treat girls and female teachers in school; how fathers and sons view their daughters, wife, sisters and mother.

Students spend the majority of their classroom time using textbooks. Despite the unsound message it’s trying to spread, teachers hardly challenge the textbooks stereotypes played in front of them and are actively reproducing them, which only adds more salt to the injury when students are just passively receiving what they were taught since they are less critical when it comes to accepting what’s being imposed on them. Moreover, it’s a regular perception that whatever is printed in textbooks must be practiced in predominantly Asian countries.

Biased textbooks will not only restrict women’s worldviews and career choices, but they also distort their self-image and the image of the opposite gender group.

We have seen a reformation in our recent Malaysian syllabus where gender stereotypes are now absent in certain subjects. In a year one English textbook, a mother was portrayed to be an individual that carries numerous roles- a housewife and also a woman with a career, a teacher. IN PJPK, Pendidikan Moral and Malay school books, male family members can be seen participating in household chores.

But saying that the problem has been fixed is the same as plastering a band aid on a bullet wound.

We’re making progress and we should be actively continuing in doing so- to build a nation where both genders are seen as equal and no one feels inferior by the other simply because they are from another sex group. That’s why schools should be held accountable in trying their best to remove gender bias in the students’ environment. This can be done by introducing sponsorship and mentorship programmes for women with collaborated companies to encourage girls to take part in economical discussions. An initiative like that might stimulate a change in attitudes among those who sit in society’s high chair- politicians, business leaders- to pave the road to gender parity. They can also introduce diverse role models such as female scientists or male cooks to students in order to teach them that gender shouldn’t hinder them from achieving what they want to do.

However, schools should not be the only one mending the issue at hand. Parents, themselves, cannot depend on schools to teach their children about gender discimination. They ought to be responsible in sharing the baton as well by:

  • Talking about these topics to their kids: Stress the importance of treating everyone fairly and equally regardless of their gender.
  • Do the walk by setting a prime example for them: Take turns with your spouse to do the housework and childcare so that your kids will understand that there’s no such thing as ‘this is a woman’s/ man’s work’.
  • Avoid perpetuating stereotypes: Let your sons play with cooking sets and your daughters play with toy trucks. Stereotypes will only limit their potential.
  • Mind your language: Refrain using phrases like ‘don’t act like a girl’ or ‘man up’ to boys because it reinforces how boys and girls should feel and behave.
  • Do not use gender as an excuse: Never condone bad behavior because of a child’s gender. Remarks such as ‘boys will be boys’ when a boy is seen acting aggressively will only further propagate the problem and normalize their violent behaviors.
  • Stop body-shaming: Girls are often fed with unrealistic beauty standards so teach your kids that we are defined by how we act and not by our physical appearances. Avoid making negative comments on their looks (ex. Skin tones, weight, facial features, etc.)

Gender equality does not mean that gender disparities are non-existent. It simply implies that the same opportunities and care should be provided to everyone regardless. Parents, family members, and teachers all play important roles in teaching gender equality and respect to the children. It is the one way to open up more doors and unlock their full capabilities.,and%20reproduced%20through%20social%20interaction.

An independent youth-led movement for education reform in Malaysia. All information and resources are available here by MYER. Twitter/Instagram — @myermovement

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