Teaching Gender Equality and its Significance

in the 21st Century

There is a widespread belief that the process of modernization along with industrialization and urbanization will improve gender equality and significantly increase women’s political participation and economic empowerment. This belief, however, has not always panned out and progress has been slow in certain areas even though some gains have been made. Modernization did not trickle down to everyone. Instead, the data shows a crisis looming as women are still poorly represented in the economic and political spheres. In developing nations, women did not receive wage parity, while primary school enrollment and literacy data continue to show a gender gap between women and men. Statistically, women still account for two-thirds of the 775 million illiterate populations today. The mindset and societal expectations of women have not changed much too. In the 21st century, sexism and gender stereotypes continue to prevail.

As an educator, I would assert that it is my responsibility to offer better exposure and impart knowledge that would effectively impede gender inequality not only theoretically, but also in practical terms to my students. In fact, gender inequality has always been one of the great concerns in education that it has become one of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – to include equal access to primary education between girls and boys. Education has not only become a primary channel to impart knowledge on gender equality but also to act as an important agent of change. Typically, it is quite easy to discuss statistical data, facts and reports to show the relevance and importance of promoting gender equality through education. However, a study has shown that exposure to institutional education may not be enough to transmit knowledge and change social attitudes to fundamentally shift gender stereotypes. The reality is not what it seems, the contributing factors are the presence of gender stereotypes content embedded in school textbooks, introduced in the primary and secondary school level and the sexist social and cultural norms deeply entrenched in our belief system. A research among youth in Malaysia suggests that textbooks serve as channels for the indoctrination of sexism and another study on a similar topic found that 66% of all verbs used in the textbook to be male-specific.

Personally, I have had a series of challenging experiences to explain and debunk myths that my students have about gender and gender equality which reveal a strong influence of socially embedded stereotypes. There have been debates over the cause of sexual assault and rape where some students still find it hard to accept that women wearing revealing clothes and going out alone at nights are not invitation to rape. There were female students who believe that women are ‘naturally’ submissive and this trait is somehow linked to hormones and genetics. There were students who strongly expressed that women are not capable of holding leadership role in jobs and politics simply because they are too ‘emotional’. Similarly, rigid gender expectations are held with regards to men, which result in ‘toxic masculinity’, for example, difficulty in expressing emotions. Quiet often I was bombarded with religious explanation to justify why a man should be the head of a household and more suitable in holding a leadership position. I must admit that it is incredibly challenging to isolate religious values away from society’s code of behavior to address gender issues.

Gender can be a very sensitive topic, so it is important to balance the strongly held beliefs and customs while trying to foster a gender parity mindset. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge students diverse background and upbringing to avoid denigrating their values and culture. Commonly, those who were raised in a systemic and patriarchal culture would assume that gender equality is a liberal Western construct and therefore must be rejected. Hence, emphasizing that the value of gender equality as a universal value shared across different cultures and societies would help to reduce such misconceptions. In many cases, differing approaches must be tailored according to students’ culture, family, gender and religious background.

With progressive mindset and aided by modern technologies, I believe that the fight for gender equality will continue to thrive. Fellow educators who strongly believe that gender equality is fundamental in education will continuously discover innovative ways and approaches to bring the change that we all hope for.

This editorial is penned by Sis. Dayang Hajyrayati Awg Kassim (GERAK - Malaysia) for AWN Newsletter Volume 3 Issue 3 (2019)