Representation of women in textbooks – a setback for female leadership?
It does not come as a surprise to anyone that women are not as well represented as men in many professional areas, and in the recent years more and more individuals and institutions have begun to seek new ways in which the workplace could be made more gender-balanced. When looking for causes of such gender disparity in male-dominated industries, we often turn to analysing the gender ratio at the level of school and university education, within student cohorts. While these numbers are rarely representative of the gender inequality at the highest levels of industry, a balanced student intake has been considered as a means to encourage more female students to read stereotypically male subjects like science, engineering, economics or politics and become role models for future generations of women, inspiring more of them to enter these sectors after graduation. In light of this goal, a particular aspect of the teaching of social sciences, such as economics and politics, has recently come to the attention of education researchers: text, pictures and case studies included in school and university textbooks. Visual content within these textbooks, such as images, sketches and examples could play a major part in shaping the students’ perception of social sciences, since the study materials offered to students are closely related to the real world and human interaction. As a result, textbooks have the power to directly influence how a female student sees their own potential in the relevant sphere.
When looking at the possible effect of textbook content on female students and their career ambitions, we need to explore the early stages of exposure to textbooks, starting with history - a subject that holds a very important place among the social sciences taught at school. History textbooks appear in education much earlier than textbooks on other social science subjects; history is popular with boys and girls alike, hence why it is considered more or less gender-balanced. However, the important characteristics of history textbooks are that, firstly, they look at past political, economic and social events and, secondly, they contain a large number of photos, artistic representations and case studies. Audrey Osler, a researcher in the fields of sociology, human rights and education, has conducted a study looking at 36 history textbooks for 11-14 year old students published in the UK, in terms of female representation. Her findings raise a number of previously unrecognised issues: for example, in each of these textbooks images of men greatly outnumbered those of women, with the most gender-balanced textbook still containing twice as many images of men as women and the worst ratio being 26:1. Furthermore, in these images women seem to appear in narrow stereotypically female roles, like nursing children, staying at home, dancing, observing the actions of men, being punished as a witch. Men, on the contrary, are shown working the land, going to war, riding, reading, praying, plotting against the government, attending Parliament. This is not just an issue of the absence of historical resources about women, as the author notes; after a quick search she was able to find plenty of historical photos and paintings where women are seen outside of such stereotypes, and there are a lot of female historical figures who deserve being mentioned not solely because of their gender. Many would argue that the gender imbalance in history textbooks serves the purpose of showing how women were underrepresented in a history recorded by men, but many of these textbooks do not seem to explicitly make this point or encourage students to actively think about the gender ratio they see in historical sources. It is this critical thinking and attention to how well different social groups are represented that many history textbooks often fail to emphasise, even though this seems like an excellent opportunity to teach students about the importance of representation not only in history, but in the world around them too.
Image credits: bbc.com
This kind of educational rhetoric that young girls get accustomed to from an early age is developed further when it comes to university education in the subjects initially mentioned. Looking at economics, we see this issue replicated, but in this case the way in which the world of economics and finance is represented in textbooks has a more direct influence on career choices of young women and their enthusiasm to remain in the field. A study by Betsey Stevenson and Hanna Zlotnick that analysed the eight most used introductory economics textbooks for undergraduate students in the US reveals a huge disparity in gender representation. On average, 77% of people mentioned in these textbooks, be that in images or text, are men, with the highest percentage of male representation within the eight books being 90% and the highest percentage of female representation being only 25%. After these numbers are broken down by categories of people that are mentioned, the picture becomes even more grim: of policy makers mentioned, 92% are male, economists are 93% male, business leaders are 94% male. This is not simply the case of there not being enough women to talk about: for example, out of the US Fortune 500 CEOs mentioned, 97% are male, even though at the time of the study Fortune listed 32 out of the 500 CEOs as female - the textbook is therefore more imbalanced than the industry itself. Another means of assessing female representation in these textbooks was the Symons Test, which was used to analyse business case studies in terms of whether they match three criteria: first – whether a woman is mentioned; second – if the woman is in a position of leadership; third – if the woman ever talks to another woman about business. Out of all the case studies in all eight textbooks that were analysed, not a single one ticked all three boxes.
History and economics are only two of the many subject areas that could be affected by this lack of representation. For example, a study of 10 undergraduate psychology textbooks in terms of female representation in images and text, first done by Sharyl Peterson and Traci Kroner in 1992 and repeated with more recent textbooks by Jonathan Collins and Thomas Hebert in 2008, shows not only that representations of women are extremely outnumbered by those of men, but that the situation has not improved in the 15 years between the studies. The same issue appears systematically in numerous academic fields, begging the question of why nothing has been done to change the status quo. Unfortunately, no large-scale studies have been done yet to measure the exact effect the situation has on young women, but some other studies in the field of sociology demonstrate a possible positive effect on female students if this issue is addressed. In one such study, done by Catherine Porter and Danila Serra in 2017, a correlation was discovered between the level of exposure of female economics students to female role models within the field and the number of the students who ultimately decide to build a career in economics.
Image credits: cengage.co.uk, amazon.co.uk, pearson.com
In light of these discoveries, I believe that a lot more work needs to be done not only to further research the effect of gender disparity in textbooks, but also to diversify the textbook publishing industry itself. At the moment, like many of the industries it depicts, it seems to be dominated largely by men.Out of the 36 history textbooks in Osler’s study, all but four have male only authors, and only two women contribute to the rest. The problem becomes even more apparent when we hear from textbook authors, both men and women, about the difficulties they experience when fighting with their seniors to place women on textbook covers and illustrations. Furthermore, the trends that I have discussed above only touch on the disparity of male and female representation, so I cannot even begin to imagine how much worse the situation is if we look at the textbook representation of individuals outside the gender binary – and this is yet another topic that should be carefully researched and addressed. Yes, textbooks on subjects like economics and psychology seem to have shown very little progress on gender representation in the recent decades, but now as more researchers explore these issues, and more students and educators begin to wonder if they really feel represented by the study materials offered to them I hope a time is coming in which change will happen. I remain hopeful that eventually we will reach the day when every student will feel truly represented and motivated by their textbooks – a small but pivotal step in the journey towards gender equality.