While cleaning out my cupboard recently, I came across old files containing my school report cards and paperwork. Amidst these papers was a rather large stack of several small certificates, with the words “Good Conduct Card” printed at the top, and my name hand-written below it.
These “Good Conduct Cards” were handed to students who displayed the “best behaviour,” every week during a morning assembly. Students would be handed the little certificate and would go on to stand in a row, proudly displaying their cards in front of the whole school. The guidelines for what the reward-worthy “conduct” was, was never explicitly spelled-out, and was up to the discretion of the faculty members. However, looking back on it, it’s clear what the framework for “good behaviour that is to be rewarded” was.
The general trend was that boys would be rewarded with this weekly incentive when they excelled in a certain area – be it sports, or getting good marks – or generally displayed good leadership behaviour. Behaviour that would be rewarded for girls on the other hand was very different. It quickly became clear to me that “conducting” myself in a certain way would be rewarded. Being disciplined, obedient, non-confrontational, and generally agreeable, were primary facets of good behaviour in girls.
From textbooks to teachers, children are consciously and subconsciously exposed to gender stereotypes in school
Women are under-represented or represented in stereotyped roles in textbooks
A 2020 report by the UNESCO states that women and girls are woefully under-represented in school textbooks across the globe, and when included in the narrative, are largely depicted in traditional and stereotyped roles.
Stories and illustrations show men as money-lenders, shopkeepers, doctors, scientists and soldiers, and women are portrayed as mothers, wives, or teachers. The women in textbooks are largely confined to the domestic sphere, their roles defined in relation to the men.
This is supported by a study conducted by Anaïs Leclere in 2017 of the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) textbooks for classes one to five. Her study found the content to be filled with gender stereotypes. The gender gap in representation existed right from the percentage of illustrations where women were even depicted, to the roles they were depicted in.
Men in history, and in fictional stories, are valorised for achieving incredible feats, while women tend to be glorified for their “helping nature.”
Strength, stamina, and intelligence, were qualities that were largely ascribed to, and celebrated in, men, while traits like being understanding and kind were celebrated in women. Boys and men engaged in physical activities and dominated the outdoors, while women and girls were framed in passive, traditional, festive, and largely indoor contexts.
The textbooks are filled with chauvinistic language.
The story “Resignation,” from NCERT English Rapid Reader describes the misery of a clerk’s life with the following explanation – “There was disappointment and defeat all around him. He had no son, but three daughters; no brother but two sisters-in-law.” A controversial Health and Physical Education textbook by Dr VK Sharma, taught in CBSE-affiliated schools, endorses, “36-24-26 shape of females is considered the best. That is why in Miss World or Miss Universe competitions, such type of shape is also taken into consideration.” Another text muses, “If a girl is ugly and handicapped then it becomes difficult for her to get married. To marry such girls [the] bridegroom and his family demand more dowry.”
In addition to this sub-conscious internalisation of gender biases through textbooks, children are also exposed to more direct disciplining in gender stereotypes.
Punishments and rewards are gendered.
Teachers come with gendered baggage of their own, and can knowingly and unknowingly discipline students with gendered motivations.
Girls tend to be punished for much smaller infractions than boys, because they’re expected to meet a higher standard of obedience and discipline to begin with.
Uniforms mean different things for girls and boys.
Rules regarding school uniforms seem to be designed with different purposes for girls and boys. While they seem to actually be intended to promote neatness and uniformity for boys, girls’ uniforms are treated as symbols of modesty and reputability, from a young age.
In my later schooling years, a professor once saw two students – a girl and a boy – at a local roadside chaat stall after school hours. The professor took the girl in question aside the next day, and in angry whispers scolded her for not keeping the reputation of the school in mind while “gallivanting around with boys.” While she wore the school uniform, her reputability would reflect on the school’s reputation, said the professor. The topic was never broached with the boy.
We carry these internalised behaviours with us to the workplace
Through these constant teachings, rewards, and reprimands, girls are conditioned to behave in a way that they believe, through their years of schooling, will be rewarded. However, once you leave the education system and step into the world of work and “adulting,” you realise that the mind-set and behaviour you’ve internalised, aren’t just not rewarded, but are also detrimental to your success.
Women’s conspicuous absence from the workforce in school curriculum narratives, leads to a sub-conscious but constant insecurity in women about their belonging in the workplace.
Further, girls are systematically conditioned to think that being agreeable, decorous, and unassuming is what will be appreciated. They are taught to not question, not interrupt, and do what they’re told. They tend to be especially anxious about doing anything that displeases others. This leads to a lack of visibility in workplaces, difficulty in asserting one’s value, and challenges to growth and success.
Accustomed to being rewarded for the behaviours and skills they’ve cultivated through their childhood and adolescence, the realisation that they are maladaptive in a work environment can be disorienting. Failure to do well is a definite possibility, and the fear of failure all the more acute.
The onus of breaking away from this cycle of maladaptive conditioning cannot just be on the women. Change needs to be implemented from primary school levels. Sexist language, whether written in textbooks or verbally used by teachers, is damaging to children, and the adults they will grow up to be. The curriculum need to be made more gender inclusive, and the narratives they build for children, more progressive.
Educational systems are imperative to creating the next generation of adept adults. What we need is equality and inclusivity in how they are shaped to become adept, as well as the very notion of adeptness and “good conduct,” irrespective of gender.
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