Me: What did the farmer give the cows to eat?
Boy: It wasn’t a farmer. It was a lady.
This dialogue reveals something depressing but not totally surprising. By the age of two, this child has already absorbed the cultural messages we are all bombarded with: that some roles are for women and others are for men. The fact that this gem of 21st century sexism came from a boy is not really relevant, since, having discussed the interaction with various friends and colleagues, many report similar conversations with young girls as well as boys. For example:
‘You can’t sit there Mummy [in the driver’s seat]. That’s Daddy’s seat.’
‘This is for girls – it’s got flowers on it.’
And my particular favourite:
‘Boys don’t cry!’
There’s a powerful YouTube video created by an organisation called ‘Inspiring the future’ in which a class of primary school children are asked to draw a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. The vast majority – girls and boys – draw men. The power of the video lies in the gasps of amazement when the real thing walk in… and they are all female. In case we didn’t already have our heads in our hands, one child says ‘They’re dressed up!’ in complete disbelief that these women might actually do these jobs.
This state of affairs is damaging for boys as well as girls. Prevailing cultural norms that prevent boys from being able to express themselves fully and pursue whatever interests they may have are limiting and unhelpful to both sexes.
So where do these prejudices come from? And how can our young learners’ teaching be honed to counteract these subconscious assumptions?
Looking beyond ELT for a moment, in our house we have a recently published Ladybird book, containing the following text:
It’s early morning on Blossom Farm and the cows are being milked. Flo, the farmer’s wife, gets the milking machine ready. Farmer Fergus leads the cows in.
Farm Hullaballoo! by Justine Smith published by Penguin, 2011
Can you spot the problem?
Flo is just as much a farmer as Fergus, as far as responsibilities go, but here she’s ‘the farmer’s wife’. When was the last time you saw a female farmer in a book, I wonder? It’s rather unfair of me to single out Ladybird books, since this kind of thing is so widespread we barely notice it. ELT materials are, unfortunately, no exception. Though the editorial process for major ELT publishers does include
checks for gender representation, it relies on authors and editors to actively engage with the idea of promoting gender equality. It’s not always top of their list of competing priorities. And as writing and editing schedules are increasingly squeezed, many such areas of quality control are under pressure.
I recently asked around on Facebook for examples of sexism in ELT materials. In reply, I received a few really appalling examples, but the majority were the sort of persistent everyday sexism we might easily overlook. It’s the subtle sexism I’d argue might be particularly pernicious. The examples I’ve seen show that there’s still a tendency to show women in domestic and nurturing roles more often than men. I saw one reader in which a dad panics in helpless despair when his son realises they’ve run out of jam. In the end, mum comes to the rescue with a new jar she’s found in the kitchen. What kind of message does this send to boys, as potential future fathers? The depiction of useless dads is quite common – Peppa Pig’s dad is another example from mainstream culture – but hugely damaging. An overview of material also shows that teachers are much more commonly shown as female than male. In general, though, men are still more likely to be shown in professional contexts (either explicitly or through artwork). Men and boys are often given more dynamic character traits and a more active role, while women and girls are more likely to be depicted as passive.
As a teacher, what can I do?
In Stockholm, there are five gender-neutral pre-schools. In these settings, children are never referred to as ‘him’ or ‘her’ but only by name or as ‘friend’, with the aim of combatting gender stereotyping and giving students the same opportunities. It’s a controversial initiative, but one which opens up the debate: if even very young children perceive gender as different, then what can we do to make sure this doesn’t become discriminatory or self-limiting? Here are some ideas:
- Avoid splitting classes into teams of girls against boys. Avoid anything that signals difference between boys and girls on a conscious or subconscious level, e.g. fancy dress outfits ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’, or giving out different prizes or different stationery on the basis of gender. (This all sounds obvious but it’s unbelievably common.)
- Include gender representation in your list of criteria for materials selection. Where possible, adapt or skip course book pages that you don’t feel meet a sufficiently high standard. Complain to the course’s Commissioning Editors – why not? (It may result in a change at reprint, or be rewritten for a new edition. At the very least it will raise awareness.)
- Search for inspiring texts about empowered girls and women. Consciously seek balance – if your class is learning about inspiring musicians, artists, athletes or inventors, for example, ensure you include as many brilliant women as men. Remember: children can’t be what they can’t see.
- Young Learner materials at low levels often focus on domestic life. Home, toys, kitchen, clothes… the opportunities for sexism abound. Keep a watchful eye on the subliminal messages being sent, both in the course books and in the questions you ask. Ask yourself: ‘In an ideal world, what would gender-equal domestic responsibilities look like? How would children play? How would they dress?’ rather than ‘Does this reflect the reality for my students in 2017?’
- Create a bank of visuals which you like, and think could be a good substitute for published ones you’re unhappy with.
- Encourage learners to be critical consumers of visuals – Do you think this picture is realistic? Why are there no boys in this picture? Etc.
- Encourage learners to call out sexism when they spot it. I recently heard a wonderful story about an English class in Spain where young teenagers expressed outrage that the ‘Guess Who?’ board game they were playing to practise questions included far more men than women. There’s a fantastic opportunity here to learn how to write letters of complaint, isn’t there?
- Make a conscious effort to use and teach gender neutral language: firefighter, police officer, actor, head teacher. Avoid redundancy: female pilot, lady farmer. In fact, avoid ‘lady’ altogether unless it’s a context in which you’d naturally also use ‘gentlemen’.
- Teach learners that in English, unlike many other languages, you cannot use the male pronoun to signify both his and her. For example, it’s only acceptable to say ‘The astronaut flew his spaceship’ if we know that the astronaut in this sentence is male (for further analysis of this, Jemma Prior has written a useful blog about gender neutral language in ELT here, with a focus on adult learners). Very recently we saw the news that Cardiff Metropolitan University has controversially banned the use of 34 words and phrases deemed to be sexist, including ‘mankind’ and ‘sportsmanship’. Whether or not you think this is a good decision, it’s worth considering that in order to be able to be able to communicate confidently in this kind of environment, the young learners of today will need to be aware of the issues around gendered language and not wrong-footed by them in their future careers.
- Consider joining the Women in ELT Facebook group, which includes discussion of lesson plans promoting gender equality, as well as being a friendly forum for much wider discussions. The group is currently only open to women, following a vote by its 900+ members, but this will be reviewed on an annual basis.
As a final word, I’d add that in the classroom we have an opportunity to control the messages and images children are exposed to. It’s a small window of the day when we have their attention. By being discerning in our choice of materials and self-critical about our own language and behaviour, we can make a real impact in shaping attitudes.
Swedish gender-neutral pre-schools: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/feb/02/swedish-schools-gender-alien-concept
Cardiff Metropolitan University bans sexist phrases http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/university-cardiff-metropolitan-bans-phrases-mankind-gentlemans-agreement-gender-neutral-terms-free-a7609521.html