Fighting teaching practices that reinforce gender bias in school

October 11 marks International Day of the Girl Child

A girl smiles in front of her school in Tivaouane, Senegal. CREDIT: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

This post is the 11th in a blog series published in 2019 in the context of a collaboration between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

In 1995 at the World Conference on Women in Beijing, countries unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing the rights of not only women but girls. The Beijing Declaration is the first to specifically call out girls’ rights.

On December 19, 2011, United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170 to declare October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world.

The International Day of the Girl Child focuses attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.

This year, under the theme, “GirlForce: Unscripted and unstoppable”, we celebrate achievements by, with and for girls since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Impact of teachers on a child’s life

Teachers are often significant players in the early development of children. They are key to achieving equitable and inclusive education systems that deliver learning. They also take up the guardian role when children attend school right from early childhood education to university.

This essentially means that teachers have the power to influence how children think, act, perceive, interpret, and articulate thoughts and experiences in the early stages of life. Even in adulthood, people will remember a punishment or praise that their teachers gave them in their school days.

In the book Becoming’ Michelle Obama – former US first lady and founder of the Let Girls Learn Initiative – recalls how embarrassed she felt when she could not pronounce the word ‘white’ in an English class prompting her teacher to order Michelle to sit back down. 

“I was sure my teacher had now pegged me as someone who could not read or, worse, did not try to” writes Michelle Obama. A hot-cheeked young Michelle further narrates how the two best pupils in her class could literally read everything correctly, making her conclude that her inability to read ‘white’ appropriately could have been “a sign that the two were marked for greatness when the rest of them were not.”

Closer to home in Africa, renowned author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her book We should all be Feminists’ underscores how African education systems have reinforced gender biases and discrimination towards girls.

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the men”, writes Ms. Adichie.

While some may disagree with Chimamanda and other writers on the gender bias of the education we deliver to children, and especially in Africa, it is imperative that we do not ignore teaching practices that may consciously or unconsciously ingrain gender discrimination, bias and reinforce patriarchy in children’s way of life and thinking.

Addressing gender bias in school

Often, the term ‘gender’ is misconceived as ‘women issues’. However, as  the Forum for Africa Women Educationalists (FAWE) describes it, gender is the roles and responsibilities of women/girls and men/boys that are defined in our families, societies, cultures, including characteristics, attitudes and behaviors expected of each sex. FAWE also defines gender bias as a preference or prejudice toward one gender and results in unequal expectations, language use and treatment.

Gender bias and stereotyping happens at the early stages of children’s learning. Some common teaching practices that reinforce gender bias against girls in the classroom include: delegating group leadership positions to boys only, constant use of ‘he’ in all learner activity references, use of African proverbs that depict girls as inferior and dependent to males.

In addition, illustrations used in pictures, text and drawings that portray women and girls doing conventional socially assigned roles, such as cooking, and boys doing white collar jobs, such as doctors and pilots, breed patriarchal narratives to the place of girls in society.

The gender biased references and illustrations have a long-lasting effect, especially when applied in the early stages of learning. This therefore calls for pre-training and in-service training of teachers to ensure they are gender sensitive and responsive in imparting new knowledge to children. It is important that teachers are cognizant of gender-friendly classroom setup and teaching methodologies.

The school infrastructure, both inside the classroom and in the school environment, should be responsive to the different needs of both girls and boys. The practical tools that teachers can use to address gender biases in and around the classroom include the Revised Gender Responsive Pedagogy Toolkit developed by FAWE in collaboration with UNESCO ICBA and UNICEF WCARO and the Early Childhood Education Gender Responsive Pedagogy designed by VVOB and FAWE. 

FAWE, VVOB and GPE also held a joint webinar on the Early Childhood Education GRP toolkit that further explains how to shape children’s ideas around gender roles and practices, both in and out of the classroom.

Girls are unstoppable!

Today, girls are moving from dreaming to achieving. More are attending and completing school, fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children, and more are gaining the skills they need to excel in the future world of work.

Girls are breaking boundaries and barriers posed by stereotypes and exclusion, including those directed at children with disabilities and those living in marginalized communities. As entrepreneurs, innovators and initiators of global movements, girls are leading and fostering a world that is relevant for them and future generations.

Girls are proving they are unscripted and unstoppable… Let’s help them to make their dreams come true!