Countries are still falling short in developing textbooks free of gender-based stereotypes

2020 Gender Report

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Credit: GMB Akash / Save the Children

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action called on countries to develop curricula, textbooks and teaching aids free of gender-based stereotypes for all levels of education, including teacher training


Textbooks can perpetuate stereotypes by associating certain characteristics with particular groups. Inappropriate images and descriptions can make students from non-dominant backgrounds feel misrepresented, misunderstood, frustrated and alienated.

Textbooks are powerful factors in construction of gender identities. They transmit knowledge and present social and gender norms, shaping the world view of children and young people. Gender norms and values not only shape attitudes and practices but also influence aspirations and dictate expected behaviours and attributes for males and females (Heslop, 2016). In some contexts, textbooks are the first – and sometimes only – books a young person reads, and so can have a lasting impact on their perceptions. That means that, through textbooks, discriminatory norms and values can be challenged. Strategic objective B.4 of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action called on countries to develop curricula, textbooks and teaching aids free of gender-based stereotypes for all levels of education, including teacher training, in cooperation with all concerned – publishers, teachers, public authorities and parents’ associations.




In many countries, girls and women are under-represented in textbooks, and when they are included, they are depicted in traditional roles. In Afghanistan, women were almost completely absent from grade 1 textbooks published in the 1990s. Since 2001, they have been represented more frequently, but usually in passive and domestic roles, shown as mothers, caregivers, daughters and sisters. They are mostly represented as dependent, with teaching being the only career open to them (Sarvarzade and Wotipka, 2017). A review of 95 primary and secondary compulsory education textbooks in the Islamic Republic of Iran showed that women accounted for 37% of images. About half the images showing women were related to family and education, while work environments appeared in less than 7%. There were no images of women in about 60% of Farsi and foreign language textbooks, 63% of science textbooks and 74% of social science textbooks (Paivandi, 2008).

In 2013, Hungary’s government revised textbooks for grades 1 to 8 to remove gender stereotypes and develop awareness of gender equality. New content included chapters in biology textbooks describing the work of female scientists to illustrate women’s contribution to science (OECD, 2017). In India, the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research revised many textbook images in 2019. For instance, grade 2 textbooks now show men and women sharing household chores, and depict a female doctor and a male chef. Students are asked to note these images and talk about them (News18, 2019).

The share of females in secondary school English language textbook text and images was 44% in Malaysia and Indonesia, 37% in Bangladesh and 24% in Punjab province, Pakistan. Women were represented in less prestigious occupations and depicted as being introverted and passive (Islam and Asadullah, 2018). One Malaysian primary school textbook suggested girls risked being shamed and ostracized unless they protected their modesty. The Ministry of Education acknowledged weaknesses in quality control and sent out a sticker to cover the graphic (Lin, 2019).

Respondents in a public consultation on gender discrimination in textbooks in the Republic of Korea pointed out that doctors and scientists were shown as mainly male while dancers, homemakers and nurses were shown as mainly female. Early childhood education textbooks depicted rabbits and foxes as female and lions and tigers as male (Republic of Korea Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 2018). In the United States, a study of introductory economics textbooks found that 18% of characters mentioned were female, and most were portrayed in relation to food, fashion or entertainment (Stevenson and Zlotnick, 2018). A study of how the country’s pre-primary, primary and secondary social studies textbooks reflected women’s history found that 53% of mentions of women referred to domestic and family roles and 2% to entry into the workforce (Maurer et al., 2018).

Chilean grade 4 history textbooks had 2 female characters for every 10 males, and women’s historical contributions were represented with stereotyped views linked to domestic chores. The grade 6 science textbook had 2 female characters and 29 males (Covacevich and Quintela-Dávila, 2014). Women’s under-representation was also evident in Italy, despite the country’s participation in an EU project in which textbook publishers agreed to a code to improve gender equality (Scierri, 2017). In Spain, the share of female characters was 10% in primary school textbooks and 13% in secondary school textbooks. One-fifth of more than 12,000 images were of women (López Navajas and López García-Molins, 2009).

An analysis of preschool textbooks in Morocco found that 71% of images depicting women showed them doing voluntary work and 10% showed them doing paid work (Cobano-Delgado and Llorent-Bedmar, 2019). In Turkey, primary school textbooks unquestioningly presented unequal social roles and a patriarchal understanding of family, and sexist language was seen in secondary school textbooks, although a 2004 curricular reform reduced this problem somewhat (Çayir, 2014). Biases continue to exist in social roles assigned to women in mathematics textbooks (İncikabi and Ulusoy, 2019). In Uganda, secondary school physics textbooks generally did not mention the gender of objects and subjects. However, use of gendered nouns (e.g. boy) and pronouns (e.g. his) gave the text gender connotations, and illustrations largely depicted men (Namatende-Sakwa, 2018).


The share of females in secondary school English language textbook text and images was 44% in Malaysia and Indonesia, 37% in Bangladesh and 24% in Punjab province, Pakistan




Inclusion is served by an approach to textbook development that employs inclusive language, represents diverse identities and integrates human rights. But several factors need to be aligned for inclusive textbook reforms to succeed. Capacities need to be developed so that stakeholders work collaboratively and think strategically. Partnerships need to be in place so that all parties own the process and work towards the same goals. Participatory processes must be followed during design, development and implementation.

Countries have used a range of strategies to make their teaching and learning materials more gender-responsive. Case studies from Comoros (Ballini, 2020), Ethiopia (Melesse, 2020) and Nepal (Bhattarai, 2020) show mixed progress. In Comoros and Ethiopia, no significant change was achieved in gender representation in texts, illustrations or roles assigned. But learning materials in Nepal have become much more gender-responsive, though more needs to be done as gender stereotypes are still present.

In Comoros, teaching and learning materials used to be imported from France. National production of textbooks began in 2015, financed by the European Union and managed by UNICEF. The education ministry prioritized textbook quantity per pupil over content. While the ministry aims to promote gender equality through education, it has provided no explicit guidance on how to reflect this in curricula and textbooks. However, staff of the entities involved in production pushed for integrating a gender dimension into the material. The Francophone Initiative for Teacher Distance Training distributed gender-responsive teacher training manuals and financed education officials’ participation in a UNESCO-conducted regional training programme aimed at increasing girls’ participation in STEM. Slight improvements in gender-responsiveness since 2015 have largely been the result of individual commitment; by the same token, lack of further progress can be attributed to difficulties faced by those involved in textbook development in overcoming personal familial, social and religious influence. Efforts have been further hindered by a lack of opportunities for those involved in development to be sensitized or trained on eliminating gender stereotypes (Ballini, 2020; Hassani Ahmed, 2019).

Ethiopia’s government has shown commitment to gender equality in education through education sector development programmes, curriculum frameworks and policy reforms. As part of reform efforts, textbooks were developed and revised, teachers were provided with gender-responsive professional development and gender-responsive pedagogy was mainstreamed in teacher education colleges. Among other institutions, the Forum for African Women Educationalists, Plan International, UNESCO’s International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa and the US Agency for International Development financed gender-related interventions, including in research, community training, in-service gender-responsive professional development and advice to policymakers. However, studies show that gender stereotypes remain (FAWE, 2019; Mehari, 2016; Tesema and Braeken, 2018).

Ethiopian textbooks are male-dominated and regularly portray men as powerful, assertive and intelligent leaders, doctors, engineers and politicians. By contrast, women have been portrayed as weak, passive and submissive and are mostly depicted in domestic, caregiving and supportive roles. A study of social studies textbooks in grades 5 to 8 found that only 12% of names were female. Mainly male pronouns were used, with female pronouns accounting for only 25% (Wondifraw, 2017). Stories of African kings, male freedom fighters and leaders were prevalent, whereas females actively involved in the independence struggle were forgotten. An analysis of the grade 8 English textbook concluded that it was gender-biased at women’s expense. Most illustrations and stories narrated men’s fame, contributions and achievements, and role models were almost exclusively male (Mulugeta, 2019). Women did not participate in textbook development or review, training in processes was lacking and authorities showed little commitment to challenging discriminatory social and gender norms. Few textbook revision processes since 1995 have included evidence from gender studies or research (Melesse, 2020).

Nepal introduced guidance in 1999 on drafting gender-responsive teaching and learning materials in grades 9 and 10 for English, Nepali, history and social studies (Ministry of Education and Sports, 2000). A gender expert was appointed that year to review gender responsiveness in textbooks. The guidelines said textbooks should represent men and women similarly. Gender-biased words such as headmaster, chairman and salesman should be replaced with words such as principal, chairperson and salesperson (Ministry of Education and Sports, 2002). The guidelines were later applied to other grades and accompanied by gender audits and the appointment of a gender link officer. A policy introduced in 2007 called for all materials to be reviewed every 5 years and revised every 10.

As a result of these reforms, textbooks have become much more gender-sensitive. Current textbooks use pictures of women extensively to represent all professions. However, a holistic overhaul of all gender stereotypes has not yet happened. Terms like ‘clever’ and ‘responsible’ are often used only for males, while females are shown to be passive and submissive. In social studies, science, English and education in grades 1, 3 and 5, for example, women are shown in jobs like treating sick people, cooking, caring for infants and organizing the community (UNESCO, 2017). Even in 2017, most textbook writers were male, and gender audits have been completed only twice since 1999 (Bhattarai, 2020).


In Ethiopia, despite government commitment to reduce gender bias in textbooks, women have not participated in reforms and a study on social studies textbooks in grades 5-8 found only 12% of names were female


Developing gender-responsive teaching and learning materials requires strong national leadership and has to be embedded in general policies on gender equality in education. Gender audits of teaching and learning materials should be conducted regularly. Textbook revision processes must be inclusive: women’s equal participation must be ensured and women’s views heard. Revisions should be based on research, and those participating should receive training in development of gender-responsive materials. The gender dimension has to be explicitly inscribed in tenders, terms of reference and contracts relating to the drafting of teaching and learning materials. Last but not least, teachers need to be trained in the use of gender-responsive teaching materials.




Countries worldwide struggle to address sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in curricula and textbooks, which tend to lack affirmative inclusion of such identities and realities. An inclusive education index covering 49 European countries found that 19 had inclusive national curricula that made it compulsory to address sexual orientation, 7 made it optional and 23 did not address the issue explicitly (Ávila, 2018).

Many curricula either ignore homosexuality, bisexuality and non-binary gender identities or treat them as deviant or abnormal. Coupled with stereotypes and discrimination in everyday school life, this can have negative effects on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students. In the United States, the 2017 GLSEN School Climate survey found that two-thirds of students had not been exposed to representation of LBGTI people and history in school. It also found that students in schools with inclusive curricula were less likely to feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation (42% vs 63%) or to be often or frequently exposed to biased language (52% vs 75%) (Kosciw et al., 2018).

A survey of 6,000 teachers in Japan showed that between 63% and 73% felt the curriculum should cover sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (Doi, 2016). The current curriculum does not properly reflect diversity in sexual orientation. The 2016 curriculum revision missed an opportunity to address this issue (Doi and Knight, 2017). A 2011 review of curricula in 10 eastern and southern African countries found that none addressed sexual diversity appropriately (UNESCO and UNFPA, 2012). Namibia’s life skills curriculum in grades 8 and 12 at least refers to the issue of diversity in sexual orientation (UNESCO, 2016).

Around the world, countries realize the need to embed sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in curricula. High-income countries are taking the lead. Following recommendations by the LGBTI Inclusive Education Working Group, Scotland (United Kingdom) announced it would be ‘the first’ to embed LGBTI-inclusive education in the curriculum in all state schools by 2021 (Scotland Government, 2018). Germany’s Berlin state focused on concepts such as difference, tolerance and acceptance to introduce sexual diversity in the primary curriculum. In Canada’s Ontario province, grade 8 students learn to connect sexual orientation and gender identity with the concept of respect (UNESCO, 2016).

California was the first US state to introduce a regulatory framework for inclusion of LGBTI people’s contributions in history and social science curricula. In 2019, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon followed (Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, 2019). However, seven states have discriminatory curriculum laws. South Carolina’s school board guidelines on sexuality education say that ‘the program of instruction … may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships’ (South Carolina Code of Laws, 2013). The Texas Health and Safety Code states that sexuality education content should emphasize ‘that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense’ under a state law that was found unconstitutional in 2003 yet remains on the books (Texas Health and Safety Code, 2018). Discriminatory language can also be found in the state’s education regulations and curriculum guidelines (Rosky, 2017). In Utah, civil society mobilization led to the repeal of a statutory prohibition against ‘advocacy of homosexuality’ as a step towards stopping discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools (Wood, 2017).

Some low- and middle-income countries have inclusive curricula with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity. Mongolia includes sexual behaviour and diversity in its sexual and reproductive health curriculum in grades 6 to 9. In Nepal, the health and physical education curriculum in grades 6 to 9 discusses health and well-being of sexually and gender diverse learners, with a particular focus on hijras, members of a transgender/intersex group recognized in Southern Asia as a third gender (UNESCO, 2015). Thailand’s course and textbooks on physical and health education in grades 1 to 12, introduced in May 2019, cover sexual diversity (Thai PBS News, 2019).

This is one of many stories of girls who are the first in their family to graduate. It was collected by the GEM Report as part of a campaign, #Iamthe1stgirl, aiming to demonstrate progress in gender equality in education since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years ago.