Smashing gender stereotypes and bias in and through education

“On this International Women’s Day and every day, UNESCO is committed to ensure all persons’ right to education free from bias and stereotypes”, said Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO.

Gender stereotypes and biases are built in people’s minds as early as childhood. They influence the toys children play with, the subjects they pursue, their entire experience of education, and their future lives and careers.

To mark International Women’s Day, UNESCO, the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) and Transform Education, with support from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), held a webinar calling on students, parents, teachers, governments and development partners to smash gender stereotypes and bias in and through education.

Moving from exclusion to inclusion

“When it comes to education, the system trains and teaches young children and young people, for example, how to dress, how to speak, influencing young people’s expressions,” shared Michael who along with Nicole, represented Transform Education, a feminist youth-led coalition hosted by UNGEI. “Obviously as we grow up, we see biases that have been created and partially embedded in the social, economic and political systems around us.”

Nicole shared her own experience of facing “negative norms since I was young saying how feminine and submissive a girl should be and classifying femininity as a negative characteristic when it comes to leadership at both school and the workplace.”

“A large number of boys tell us that if they don’t live up to these norms, they are bullied or otherwise experience violence at school”, said Gary Barker, CEO of Promundo, recognizing that gender norms also impact boys, and more broadly gender equality. “This matters for boys’ educational attainment… It matters also tremendously for girls and women. We know from our research that boys and young men who buy into these inequitable norms and learn them at home are more likely to use violence against a female partner and they are less likely to support gender equality overall.”

Choosing subjects and careers freely

“We know that gender stereotypes and biases become engrained in early childhood, and that they affect students’ decisions about the types of futures they should plan for,” said Erin Ganju, Managing Director of Echidna Giving and the moderator of the event.

“Girls and boys follow certain stereotypes. Girls’ aspirations are to become doctors, teachers, nurses, psychologists and veterinarians. For boys, they want to become engineers, work in ICT and in mechanics”, said Marta Encinas-Martin, Gender Ambassador at the OECD, sharing results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Gender stereotypes affect girls’ study paths and career choices. This has resulting implications, with fewer women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and fewer men in the teaching, health and social workforce.

Transforming bias through education and communities

The Global Education Monitoring Report and UNESCO launched a new factsheet challenging gender bias and stereotypes in and through education. Recognizing the transformative role of education, Anna Cristina D’Addio stated that gender bias and stereotypes can “be reinforced but they could also be challenged by the school programmes, the curricula and the teaching materials and the teaching that learners are exposed to.”

Amelia Fernandez, Advisor for the Government of Navarre, and laureate of the 2019 UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education for the project SKOLAE, shared that “teachers have a duty to have a gender-transformative approach so that we explain to learners all of their capabilities and enable them to fulfil their potential as people and not as silos of boys and girls separately.”

Stephen Jalenga, from the Ministry of Education in Kenya, emphasized the role of mentors and role models to deconstruct gender stereotypes in STEM fields: “A girl from the rural area may have never seen a female engineer, or a female pilot. When you enable them to interact with such mentors, it gives them the impetus to move ahead.”

“We need to have these conversations in ways that are compassionate and caring and that call boys and men into the benefit that we all get when we embrace healthier versions of manhood”, said Barker.

Sujata Bordoloi, of UNGEI, said “We all have to unlearn and question false and limiting beliefs about others and ourselves. We think it would be really great if education around the world prepared students to think outside the ‘gender box’.”

Maria Nguyen, representing the SDG4Youth Network, closed the event with the following powerful words, “There is one key action that is needed to smash stereotypes and to challenge gender bias in and through education: to challenge the silence. Challenge it when no one else seems to be standing up against gender stereotypes in education. Challenge it when the needs of students and young people who are at the heart of education are unheard. Challenge what is spoken and what is left unspoken.”