According to research from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), gender bias is a pervasive problem in textbooks all over the world. The Global Educational Monitoring Report, published on March 8, concludes that this bias negatively affects girls and women. For example, in India, males receive the lion’s share of representation; females are shown in a mere six percent of textbook illustrations. In math textbooks, women are never shown in roles such as engineer or executive. While the issue of gender bias in textbooks can be more serious in countries other than the United States, it does exist here. Here’s a look at the problem.

Gender Bias in U.S. Textbooks

According to the UNESCO research, textbooks play a hugely significant role in children’s learning, accounting for 70 percent to 95 percent of teaching time. As such, the importance of textbooks in shaping children’s views of gender is immense. A National Public Radio (NPR) article from 2015 points to a 2006 study of American textbooks. Findings include:

  • In a survey of 18 common history textbooks, 12,382 males were depicted, compared with 1,335 females.
  • Illustrations showed 616 named women and 3,505 named men.

U.S. biology textbooks also seem to reveal bias. According to NYU Medical Anthropologist Emily Martin, biology textbooks tend to portray a difference between the importance of the the egg versus the sperm in the reproductive cycle, which can carry over to the role of women and men to convey women as less important.

With these findings, it’s natural to ask the question of whether children are learning to be gender biased in schools. While some of it is unconscious, students witness obvious aspects firsthand every day. For instance, most of the teachers at an elementary-school level are female, while males tend to be janitors and principals. It is also common for teacher biases to creep in and discourage girls from fields such as science and math.

What Parents Can Do

Parents can play a huge role in ensuring that their children do not grow up with sexist views and instead are empowered with the knowledge that the genders are equal, that it’s okay and normal for women to be executives and for men to be teachers. The first step is for parents to be aware of their own biases—and they likely do exist. For instance, in one study that had babies crawling inclines, mothers of boys correctly estimated their babies’ skill, while mothers of girls underestimated by nine degrees. Both boys and girls crawled inclines the same. In other findings, parents are more likely to ignore crying baby boys versus crying baby girls.

It is critical for parents to educate themselves on the issue and to understand how unconscious biases can manifest themselves. Parents need to go out of their way to encourage girls to be active and rough-and-tumble. They should be more attentive toward boys’ feelings and treat displays of anger in boys and girls equally. Depending on the maturity of the child, parents can sit down with their children and explain the problem of sexism in schools in a straightforward manner, saying that people don’t see many male teachers in elementary school because, unfortunately, males are directed toward other professions. In general, parents should encourage risk taking and avoid labels.

Parents should also become more involved in what their children are learning in school to avoid gender bias. Noticing that a textbook includes outdated or biased language will allow a parent to point out the problem and discuss it with the child. Online learning is one way for parents to retain more control of their children’s education. As a child’s online Learning Coach, a parent can have more familiarity with their children’s curriculum. With online learning, girls also feel bolder about asking questions, and online discussion facilitates a barrier-free atmosphere where no one is shut down. Could online learning be right for your child? Find out more today at k12.com.

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