On Saturday June 17th, Trinity College and Regent’s University held the second teachers’ conference on ‘The Future of English Language Teaching’. Together with Melody Philip and Varinder Unlu, I spoke on the panel ‘Women in ELT: How can we achieve gender equality?’, chaired by Jackie Kassteen. This blog is a summary of my contribution to the session. I took the student experience as my focus, looking at how students are taught and the materials used.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity now stands at 60%. At the current rate of progress, it’s estimated that it will be 81 years before women can expect equality in the workforce, internationally. In the light of these stats, what can we do as teachers, writers or publishers to help promote a more gender-equal future for our students? In my talk I suggested three areas to look at.
1 Being critical of materials
In a show of hands, about half the audience said they currently considered gender representation as a criterion when selecting classroom materials. When asked how many had come across materials they found sexist, about half said they had. The examples of sexism they volunteered to share included the cliché of women rather than men performing domestic duties.
This comes as no great surprise. I have talked at length about gender representation and materials development in a previous blog for IATEFL MaWSIG, outlining the subtle but recurrent imbalances we see in course books, and the problematic lack of women depicted in aspirational roles. Essentially: students can’t be what they can’t see. One way to tackle this is to incorporate role-models in the classroom materials we put under students’ noses.
As well as identifying poor gender representation in course books, and avoiding or adapting that material, I suggest that when we find good resources which empower and inspire, we share them! (The Women in ELT facebook group is a forum sometimes used for this, for example.)
2 Being self-critical – monitoring the behaviours we model and the language we use
We’re all sexist. I know I am. We all have unconscious bias. We have it because we are the products of the society we live in, which is unequal in some fairly fundamental ways.
How does this affect the classroom?
There’s a lot of research showing that teachers interact more with boys, call on them more frequently and ask them more questions. Boys are also more likely to shout out answers, and less likely to be reprimanded for doing so. We can be aware of these biases, and consciously try to rectify them.
We can also be mindful of the language we use. Lots of people will say this is unimportant but I don’t agree – language shapes the way we see the world, and in defining our reality we change the way we experience it. We can find and teach neutral alternatives to gendered language (eg firefighter, police officer, actor, head teacher, chair, spokesperson etc)
3 Encouraging learners – male and female – to be critical too
We know that visual literacy is a crucial 21st century skill. Kids are bombarded by images on TV and the internet, as well as in books, and they need to know how to read their messages. We can encourage learners to be critical of the visuals they consume by routinely asking questions: What do you think about this picture? Is it realistic? Why or why not? Is your family like this? What message does this picture tell us? What’s missing?
We can also teach learners to be aware of gender stereotyping (and other types of stereotyping) and call it out when they spot it. Perhaps the most effective way to get students talking about this is to surprise them by highlighting their own unconscious biases. Check out this recent post by Adi Rajan on an activity which uses images to explore stereotypes, for example. And see this fantastic video by Inspire the Future about the surprise a primary class had after being asked to draw a firefighter, a fighter pilot and a surgeon.
We can encourage learners to think about gendered assumptions about behaviours and expectations and not to be pigeonholed.
Attitude to risk is also part of this conversation. It’s important to create learning environments in which girls become accustomed to taking risks. In this TED talk, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code asks us to ‘Teach girls bravery, not perfection’. She argues that we’re raising girls to be perfect, and we’re raising boys to be brave. Girls are taught to avoid risk and failure, which holds them back. This ‘bravery deficit’ accounts for female under-representation in many parts of the public sphere, she says. Women have been socialised to aspire to perfection and are overly cautious as a result.
Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, makes a similar argument in her influential book Lean In. Her main point is to say that as well as facing institutional obstacles, women face internal ones, which prevent them from putting themselves forward for opportunities and make them more likely to downplay their achievements and abilities. She has a refrain which she comes back to over and again, which I think is a good note to end on:
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
This is something we need to ask ourselves about our own careers, and can also get students thinking about, too.
Over to you
I’d love to hear your ideas about gender representation in materials and what we can do to challenge stereotypes. Please do share your thoughts in the comments.
For more about the ‘Women in ELT’ panel session, read Melody Philip’s blog here.