Gender equity and education
Suzanne M. Charles Watson, Guest Columnist
Over the last two decades, the ways in which the outputs and outcomes of regional Caribbean education systems have been mediated by issues of gender have captured both the popular imagination, as well as that of Caribbean scholars, education practitioners and education policymakers alike.
Claims range from the propensity of our education systems to alienate certain groups - mainly males - as evidenced by their disproportionately low rates of participation, to assertions that our regional systems are equally disadvantageous to both male and female students, albeit in different ways.
A useful framework within which to consider the relevant issues is the Dakar Framework for Action, which makes a distinction between formal equality, which refers to numerical gaps between the sexes at various levels of education, and substantive equality, which refers to the qualitative experience of education in terms of equal treatment during the educational process, and the social currency of education to either sex, beyond the formal school experience.
While formal equality is crucial in ensuring equal access and subscription to our regional education systems, substantive equality is perhaps a more critical indicator of the success or failure of our educational systems, as it speaks to the ways in which access is equitably translated into benefits of education.
Not only does the equitable distribution of such benefits redound directly to the sustainable development of our small island developing states, such distribution is mandated by the international frameworks and protocol to which we are signatory, including, but not limited to The CEDAW Convention, The Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals, which all advocate the provision of, inter alia, education systems by states, which provide comparable outcomes for male and female students.
At the regional level, the commitment of CARICOM to produce, through education, the Ideal Caribbean Person, who nourishes in himself/herself and in others the fullest development of each person's potential without gender stereotyping and embraces differences and similarities between females and males as a source of mutual strength, also cannot be ignored.
THE IDEAL EDUCATED JAMAICAN
Locally, the Educated Jamaican, as envisaged by the Task Force on Educational Reform, as a lifelong learner, who is well-rounded, agile of mind, able to adjust to different situations, is responsible and able to make decisions, now necessitates the use of education systems to create persons with such capabilities.
Regrettably, despite commitments to promote gender equality through education systems at the various levels, a disconnect remains, reflected through - among other things - the content of textbooks. As an educational tool of prime importance, the textbook - according to UNESCO - can potentially act as a tool to either encourage or encumber social change through its use as an agent of socialisation. By presenting particular kinds of gender systems, textbooks can potentially standardise, reinforce and legitimise gender inequality, which is likely to be assimilated not only by the pupils but also by teaching professionals and parents, who do not necessarily view its contents critically.
The recent research initiative, Gender Review of Caribbean History Textbooks, completed by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, with funding from the United Nations Population Fund, offers ample evidence of the ways in which textbooks serve to undermine the gender equality we wish our education systems to promote.
Informed by the log frame developed by the International Network for Research into Gendered Representations in Textbooks, the research reviewed 30 Caribbean history textbooks currently in use by the Caribbean Examinations Council at both the CSEC and CAPE levels, examining aspects such as authorship, language and visuals to determine the extent to which gender systems, which privileged particular groups over other, were presented.
The results revealed disturbing trends, which indicated that the tripartite of race, class and sex continue to be used as a combined prism through which to present certain groups of persons in subordinated roles.
1. Males were consistently afforded pride of place over women in terms of text and visuals.
Masculine terms accounted for 20 per cent of all terms used throughout the books under review, compared to only 14 per cent of terms used in reference to females.
Of particular importance, 65 per cent of all terms used were either gender blind - in which critical opportunities were missed to address issues of gender - or gender neutral.
75 per cent of all texts had male characters appearing on their covers, while only in 68 per cent of the texts did female characters appear on the cover.
Of the 1,118 visuals that appear throughout the texts, only 158 (14.1 per cent) depicted female characters, compared with 55 per cent of all images depicting male characters.
2. Conversely, women and girls were consistently characterised by negative terms in comparison to men and boys.
In approximately 90 per cent of the cases in which females are mentioned, they are contextualised in stereotypical roles. This was the case for only 26 per cent of males.
Whereas male figures were assigned powerful roles in 97 per cent of cases in which they appear, this was only true for females in 65 per cent of instances in which they appear.
While uplifting adjectives or descriptions were used to describe men in 83 per cent of the cases in which they are mentioned, this was only the case for females in 54 per cent of the instances in which they are mentioned.
The findings are particularly worrisome, when one considers, as Kereszty (2009) suggests, that the 'hidden' curriculum has an identity forming role, since it mediates the gender-specific expectations, norms and behaviours, and therefore it contributes to the reproduction of social inequalities in the society. Textbooks might transform, strengthen or diminish the developed and developing power relations both in the classroom and in the wider society.
Kereszty echoes Bailey, who, writing of the Caribbean, notes that one aspect of the hidden curriculum through which gender stereotypes are transmitted are the print materials used to support the delivery of curricula at all levels. The images portrayed in curriculum materials are powerful and effective socialisation tools.
Having recently commemorated International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25), as well as International Men's Day (November 19), we are reminded of the deleterious and far-reaching consequences of gender inequity on our societies and the myriad ways in which it may compromise our long-term socio-economic development, not the least of which is violence against women or gender stereotypical expectations of men, which tacitly condone a culture of violence.
If our efforts towards gender equality are to be effective, we must be mindful of our national, regional and international responsibilities and obligations and remain conscious of the critical role knowledge production and presentation holds, with particular reference to the development of young minds, irrespective of race, class or sex.
Suzanne M. Charles Watson is a Research Fellow of The Institute for Gender and Development Studies, a member of the 51% Coalition. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.