3. Discriminatory norms and practices within education

Because schools reflect gender norms in wider society, discriminatory norms and practices are frequently replicated in schools, unless there is a strong gender-egalitarian ethos and teachers are sensitised to gender equality and how to combat it. Here, we signpost evidence on some of the ways in which discriminatory gender norms are manifested in schools and undermine educational outcomes. 

Gender discriminatory practices and stereotypes about girls’ and boys’ abilities

Levtov (2013) and Kagestan et al. (2016) provide a good overview of studies that document how education reinforces discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes across a range of country contexts. These norms and stereotypes are reinforced through teaching practices (such as responding more readily to boys or asking boys more questions) and through school and classroom organisation, such as gendered assignment of chores – such as asking girls to clean and boys to chop wood. 

Some studies suggest that boys’ schools are at particular risk of reinforcing hypermasculinity (exaggerated male stereotypical behaviour) but there is little comparative evidence. There is also conflicting evidence on how far girls’ schools are likely to challenge stereotypes concerning girls’ achievement and capabilities, and how far they reinforce conventional norms about femininity. In both cases, the extent to which discriminatory norms are reinforced or challenged is likely to reflect the school’s ethos and its commitment to gender equality, rather than simply reflecting whether boys and girls are educated together. 

Within schools, and reinforced by wider society, discriminatory norms and stereotypes affect learning and education outcomes. These stereotypes often concern girls’ overall competence or their competence in specific subjects (usually mathematics, scientific or technical subjects) and are linked to norms about what are ‘suitable’ subjects for girls to study or suitable sectors/industries for women to work in. In some schools, gender-stereotyped expectations can see girls channelled into studying technical subjects perceived to be useful for their future role (such as domestic science) – subjects that may also be perceived as unsuitable for and thus rejected by boys. 

The latest data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show some narrowing of gender inequalities in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) achievement, with patterns specific to particular regions. But boys still have better overall outcomes than girls in mathematics, physics and computing, as well as greater participation in the latter subjects. Qualitative evidence shows the strength of these gendered stereotypes among teachers and students alike. For example, see Masinire’s study (subscription required) of school vocational and technical education in Zimbabwe, and Dunne’s study of factors and processes related to gender inequality in Ghana and Botswana.


Gender stereotypes and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education

In many countries, regions and contexts, there is a pervasive stereotype that girls are fundamentally less well-suited to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and thus less competent in these subjects than boys. This is not a norm in the sense of a set of informal rules of behaviour, but more a set of beliefs that influence behaviour. These stereotypes can negatively affect girls’ interest, engagement and achievement in STEM and reinforce boys’ and girls’ behaviour patterns in these subjects (e.g. with girls venturing fewer comments or answers to questions and boys monopolising equipment and resources). 

Girls who assimilate these stereotypes often have lower levels of self-efficacy and confidence in their ability than boys; conversely, girls with high levels of self-efficacy in STEM subjects are much more likely to reject such stereotypes. Self-efficacy affects both STEM education outcomes and aspirations for STEM careers. Some in-depth studies show girls being discouraged from STEM subjects, which are perceived to be harder than others, particularly if subjects are not taught in an applied manner with clear linkages to real world issues. 

Globally, there is a positive trend in terms of closing the gender gap in STEM-related learning outcomes, but significant regional variations remain. For example, where data are available in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, the gender gap in mathematics achievement in secondary education is largely in favour of boys, with less marked differences in sciences. In contrast, in the Arab states, girls perform better than boys in maths and science subjects in primary and secondary education. UNESCO suggests that this may reflect the high proportion of single-sex schools in the region, which may go some way to limiting the impacts of negative stereotypes.

These clear gender gaps in STEM engagement and learning outcomes have led to a range of initiatives (mostly small scale and/or time-bound) to interest girls in computing and technology, often in girl-only environments with female mentors. UNESCO’s Cracking the Code, and the private sector and gender norm change guide, give some examples. Though these initiatives appear promising, their impacts have not been synthesised. As with other girl-focused activities, in environments where schools are underfunded and most boys also lack development opportunities, ensuring that similar opportunities are available to boys (in parallel, rather than necessarily in mixed groups) may help prevent resentment and backlash.

Sources: UNESCO (2017) Cracking the Code

Gender bias in textbooks. Gender bias in school textbooks and educational materials is under-researched; as Blumberg (2008) explains, this problem is understandably seen as less urgent than enabling millions of out-of-school children to go to school or improving the quality of schooling to enhance their learning. Nonetheless, Blumberg’s detailed analysis shows how gender stereotypes in textbooks can help cement discriminatory gender norms, and discusses some efforts to revise learning materials to promote gender equality. Mensch et al.’s study (subscription required) of education and gender norm change among Egyptian adolescents comes to similar conclusions.

Religious education. Religious schools and religious education are diverse, offering excellent and transformative educational opportunities in some contexts but a narrow and conservative worldview in others. Keep checking back for further material exploring the role of religious education in maintaining and challenging discriminatory gender norms. 

Sexual and gender-based violence in schools

Sexual and gender-based violence in schools is increasingly recognised as a deterrent to enrolment, a major cause of school drop out, and a negative influence on educational outcomes, particularly for girls but also for boys. Sexual and gender-based violence in and around schools both reflect and reinforce wider norms about the acceptability of sexual harassment, around heterosexuality as normative, and about consent and power in gendered and sexual relationships. Recent work by the Institute of Education at the University of London, supported by UNGEI, has developed a useful conceptual framework for understanding different dimensions of this issue. It has brought together data on the scale of the problem, and provides pointers about how to eliminate gender-based violence, including homophobic violence, in and around schools. 

Marcus, R. 2017 Education and gender norm change, ALIGN, London, UK