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How to Identify Gender Inequality in Teaching Materials

FILE - Pakistani students are seen gathered around their teacher in a classroom in Karachi, Pakistan, Feb. 24, 2014.
FILE - Pakistani students are seen gathered around their teacher in a classroom in Karachi, Pakistan, Feb. 24, 2014.
How to Identify Gender Inequality in Teaching Materials
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Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on gender equality in the classroom

Creating a classroom environment that treats women and men equally is important for the educational success of students. However gender equality does not stop with the teacher. It is also important that the materials used are supporting equal treatment.

In fact, many classroom materials, especially those that are older, may contain gender bias in activities, photos, or words. These materials can include textbooks, images, reading materials, written assignments, or even test materials. Having students use materials like these in class can reinforce stereotypes about gender roles in society.

Classroom materials that reinforce gender stereotypes can discourage students, weaken their motivation and limit their overall academic performance. This can result in fewer opportunities available to students when they finish their schooling.


Research has found that stereotypes and gender bias in English language materials do exist. Several studies by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, have found that some texts underrepresent women, contain stereotypes about women or offensive comments about women.

In addition, research has found that characterizations in teaching materials often show a male majority. One study on high school English language textbooks in Iran found that male characterizations were used as much as 80% of the time.

Identifying gender bias: case studies

The first step is to understand how to identify gender bias in textbooks.

Examine the image below. These images were taken from an English language textbook. What do you notice about how the men and women are being portrayed?

A picture taken from an English language textbook.
A picture taken from an English language textbook.

In this image there are six people, four men and two women, shown in different jobs. The men pictured include a construction worker, a doctor, a police officer, and a truck driver. The women shown include a farm worker and a food store employee.

This image shows men and women in gender-stereotyped jobs in two ways. First, male representation is double that of female. Second, the men generally are working in higher-level, more economically powerful jobs.

Now look at a short reading activity from an actual English language textbook. What do you notice about the representation of men and women in the example?

How does weather affect us?

The weather of a place can affect our daily lifestyles in many ways This makes the weather forecast something of significance to us. Weather influences to a very great extent the sort of food we eat, what we wear, how we live and work. Despite the advances made in science and technology, farmers and their crops are still at the mercy of the climate and the weather.

The fishermen, farmers, journalists, sportsmen, housewives and aeroplane pilots are some of the persons who are directly affected by the weather. The fishermen must be sure that there are no strong winds and excessive rainfall before going out to sea.

Farmers must know the weather conditions so that their crops can be planted at the right time. Do you remember when the El Niño weather phenomena caused a vast amount of crops to be destroyed?

Sportsmen cannot be engaged in sporting activities during certain weather conditions.

Can you imagine a game of cricket or football being played during a period of heavy rainfall?

The housewife, too, must know the weather for the day to be able to decide her daily activities, for example, laundry work.

From the Global Education Monitoring Report's World Education Blog

See more examples at Global Education Monitoring Report

The piece discusses weather and how it affects people in different jobs. However, it refers to some of the jobs using masculine endings, such as “fishermen” and “sportsmen.” The only specific reference to a woman is that of “housewife.”

This enforces gender stereotypes in two ways: First, it creates the impression that some of these jobs are meant for males only. It also creates the impression that the job of staying at home and doing house activities is meant for women.

Identifying bias: Materials and curriculum checklist

It is important that teachers are skilled in identifying the signs of unequal gender representation in textbooks and other materials. A UNESCO checklist can help teachers check their materials for this problem. Here are some of its guidelines:

  1. Are the materials used by the teacher or students free from gender stereotypes?
  2. Do the materials show females and males an equal amount of times?
  3. Do the materials show females and males with equal respect, and potential (when talking about jobs, or the future, for example)?
  4. Does the curriculum reflect the needs and life experiences of both males and females?
  5. Does the curriculum promote peace and equality for males and females, regardless, of their race, class, disability, religion, sexual preference, or ethnic background?

Improving your materials

So, what can teachers do when they find gender inequities in teaching materials?

The answer is: it depends. Some teachers are able to make changes to their materials or the way in which they use them. Other teachers may be able to create original teaching content. Here are some more UNESCO guidelines that might help such efforts.

  • Make sure that males and females are shown equally in class materials.
  • Make sure that the themes, subjects, and pictures used in class materials connect to the life experiences of both female and male students.
  • Make sure that female and male students are not presented only in stereotypical ways.
  • Make sure you use a balanced amount of materials written by male and female authors.
  • Include women and men as examples of experts or leaders

It requires additional work for teachers to review their materials for gender bias. But using gender-sensitive materials in class can help support the creation of more gender-sensitive attitudes among students. It can also establish a stronger learning environment where all students are motivated to succeed.

I’m Phil Dierking.

And I’m Jill Robbins

Phil Dierking wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

What are other ideas for adapting teaching materials to be more gender-sensitive? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

bias – n. a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly​

characterization – n. the act of describing the character or qualities of someone or something​

curriculum – n. the courses that are taught by a school, college, etc.​

discourage – v. to make (someone) less determined, hopeful, or confident​

gender – n. the state of being male or female​

opportunity – n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done​

stereotype – n. an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic​