Unintentional messages in materials development

Materials development and gender issues

By Agatha J. van Ginkel, Ph.D.

…child care is much more than breastfeeding and rather than having another illustration of a breastfeeding woman…they could have an illustration of a father washing a child…

The other day I was sitting next to the Gender and Inclusion Specialist who is part of the materials development team in the project I’m working in. The quote above is one example of the ways that gender bias permeated the initial drafts of the lessons. I realised again how crucial her role was in the materials development process.

There are many issues to consider when developing materials; besides thinking about the methodology, the pedagogy, and language-related issues, there are also gender issues that need to be considered. Textbooks communicate a world view that may give messages to girls and women that they are not as important as boys and men, that they are second class citizens.

While most countries and communities want to communicate that men and women, boys and girls are equally important and not hierarchically different—one lower than the other—it takes great effort to communicate this in instructional materials. Let’s take the instructions to students, for example. In many languages there are grammatical male and female markers on words, students-male and students-female. There is no neutral term that would include both of them. And as you might have observed in the sentences above, I followed the ‘normal’ way in which we present gender: male first, then female. It is a very natural way of writing, but it implicitly communicates that male comes first, then female. And when a language has gender markers on words, most of the time lesson writers will write the male word first and then the female one in instructions to students. In gender-sensitive materials, the two forms are alternated. That case is easy to address.

More complex to deal with are culturally-ingrained practices that favour males. In many cultures, it is not unusual for men to ‘steal a bride’. They can just go to a village and snatch a girl from the road, take her somewhere, marry her and then settle the issue with the family. One can influence students’ thinking about this cultural practice by addressing it in stories and having good discussions with them.

But there is more to it: Often the everyday words used to express cultural practices are gender-bound. Let’s again look at marriage. In many languages there are two words for marriage, one related to the lady and one related to the man. Often it is the case that the lady is ‘taken’ while the man ‘takes’. How does one change this, as there is often not a neutral word in the language indicating marriage? In one of the languages we are working with, the writers thought about this for quite some time and then agreed that the phase after the wedding is ‘living together’. Rather than using the traditional words for marriage they decided to say that the lady and man mutually agreed to live together.

When developing educational materials, even (or perhaps it would be better to say especially) reading and writing methodologies are not neutral. They always convey an underlying world view. It is important to be aware of this and work with a language community regarding how they can encourage gender equality. Let’s not unintentionally give girls the message that they are second class citizens or let boys believe that they are superior to girls.