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Gender Issues in the Classroom


FORUM/8.11.99 Distinguishing between sex and gender is of tremendous importance because it is instrumental in forming people's identities, or, for the purposes of this article, students' identities. While students would have to resort to surgery to change their sexual identity, they have a large measure of power over their gender identity. This also means that they are impressionable and are likely to take on board at least some of the attitudes towards gender that they meet in the media, or, in this specific example, the books that they study on their English course.

Sex, of course, refers to nature (biology), which determines whether a person is male or female. This is not changeable, unless one has sexual reassignment surgery. Gender, on the other hand, refers to culture. One's culture prescribes how oneself and society view what behavior, clothing, thoughts, feelings, relationships etc. are appropriate or inappropriate for members of each sex. These factors join to form an individual's personal sense of self.

Thus, all people have a sexual as well as a gender identity. One's gender identity is partly assigned by society, and partly perceived by the individual. It can seem somewhat arbitrary as it varies according to sex, location, class, occasion and a plethora of other factors.

Gender socialization may be defined as the ways in which one learns one's gender identity and how one develops according to the cultural norms for how men and women should behave. The agents of gender socialization are individuals who socialize others, for example the family, schools, the peer group and the media.

Ideally, students should be introduced to the widest possible range of gender roles in order to open their minds to as many life styles as possible. If they are not, the course materials contribute to narrowing their choices in life rather than widening them.

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines gender as "(fml) sexual classification; sex; the male and female genders" (p. 513), and sex as "1 (a) condition of being male or female; gender; differences of sex" and 4 "(idm) the weaker sex" (p. 1160) and refers the reader to "weak". "Weak", (pp.1443-4) is defined as "1(a) lacking strength or power; easily broken, bent or defeated; She was still weak after her illness, too weak to walk far. Her legs felt weak/She felt weak in the legs". Further, " 6 - (at/in/on sth) not achieving a high standard; deficient: Her school report shows that she is weak at/in arithmetic and biology", and finally: "the weaker sex (dated sexist) women in general".

Two issues emerge: Firstly, that the above definitions are gender biased, and secondly, that this dictionary does not distinguish notably between sex and gender.

The users of this dictionary learn that being physically weak is closely associated with the female sex and is thus biological. Further, being academically weak is also associated with women as the dictionary cites a female student's supposedly poor academic record in two (stereotypically masculine) subjects, viz. arithmetic and biology.

If there is no distinction between sex and gender, it seems that all people, female or male, are stripped of choices in life. This is so because, as discussed above, one's gender identity is changeable, albeit it requires time and effort on behalf on the individual as well as society. Or, to put it bluntly, women are weak because they are women, not because they have been socially conditioned to perceive themselves as weak.

The dictionary then consolidates these biased views by repeating the old adage that women are the weaker sex, while, again according to the above sex/gender section, one could claim that some women live in cultures in which they themselves and society perceive them as weaker than men.

While the dictionary admits that this saying is "outdated and sexist" it seems to fit into the context quite well, and, further, leads to the question: if a definition is outdated and sexist, why is it in the dictionary at all?

The textbook Passport. English for International Communication is centered around the adventures of five Japanese abroad, and the friends that they make during their time abroad. Miki and Rie are travelling in the US and Canada. They are college mates in Japan, and plan to spend most of their holiday in North America shopping and sightseeing.

Koji who is travelling by himself is on a home-stay program with Mr. and Mrs. Todd in Australia. He is planning to enroll at a language school for two or three months and then travel around Australia. He is 22 and quite active; he likes to ski and ride his motor bike.

Makoto and Mayumi are spending their honeymoon in the UK. In the introduction to the textbook we are told that Makoto "thinks his new wife spends too much money"

In the following, I shall attempt to direct the reader's attention to a number of passages in the textbook and in the accompanying tape script which may be said to be gender biased.

Firstly, this section concentrates on Miki and Rie. Rie plays a rather small role in this textbook; this may be due to her reluctance to speak English, which is mentioned in the introduction. In unit 10, Rie tells her American friend about her family, saying about her Dad that "He works for Sony" and about her Mom "She is a school teacher."

Miki's first long conversation is found in unit 7, which is set at the doctor's. Miki has a backache which she believes is brought about by a shopping spree the previous day. She says "I went shopping yesterday and I bought a lot of things. I think it was all too heavy for me!" Later, in unit 10, she is showing some pictures from Japan to an American friend of hers. She explains that the shops in Japan are open Sundays and that "I love to go shopping then." Talking about her family, she says about her father that "He works in a bank." and of her mother she says: "She's a travel agent.".
The gender stereotyping is quite obvious here, as Miki's Dad has a traditionally high status job as a banker, while her Mom ranks somewhat lower on the social ladder as a travel agent. Rie's family is similar in that her Dad is a Japanese business executive, while her Mom has a more nurturing position as a schoolteacher.

Miki seems a bit frail in that she has "overworked" herself going shopping to the extent that she needs to see a doctor for ensuing pain. Further, it appears from the above quotations, and from all the activities that they do not engage in, that Miki and Rie are on a pleasure trip to North America, and that they have no academic aspirations such as improving their English during their stay.

Secondly, the following paragraph highlights Koji's and the Todds' interactions. We first meet them in unit 6, in which Koji is attempting to find his way about the house. In conversation 4, it becomes apparent that Mr. Todd decides the rules for smoking in the house, and for socializing. It seems equally apparent, that Mrs. Todd is the one who knows how to use the various facilities in the house. This can be seen in several of Koji's conversations with Mrs. Todd, such as "Can you show me how to use the washing machine?" and "Could you show me how to use the shower?"

The clue to the above work division may be found in Unit 13 in which a picture shows Mr. Todd has donned a suit and a briefcase and is presumably on his way to work. This may indicate that Mrs. Todd is a homemaker as there are no indications that she works outside of the house.

An additional example of biased gender roles in the Todd household occurs in unit 19, in which Koji is on his way back to Japan, and is thanking the Todds for letting him stay in their house. This conversation takes place between Mr. Todd and Koji only, as Mrs. Todd is too overcome with emotion to actually speak with Koji. In the picture, she can be seen clasping her handkerchief to her face, while Mr. Todd is shaking Koji's hand goodbye.

Finally, the following is an analysis of how Mayumi and Makoto, the newlyweds, interact. The reader first meets them in unit 15 in which they are out shopping; Mayumi is buying a shirt. The accompanying picture shows her husband struggling to carry all her shopping and with a look of terror on his face as she is about to make another purchase. The look on Mayumi's and the female shop assistant's faces can best be described as flirtatious. Come time to pay, Mayumi doesn't understand the shop assistant's question of "How will you be paying? Which method of payment? In cash?" to which she replies "Oh, my husband is paying."

Similarly, in unit 18 the married couple are at the front desk of their hotel. Makoto is explaining to the front desk staff that he has lost his (not their) credit card. Mayumi is seen in the background, looking very stern, and not taking part in the efforts to recover it.

In unit 17 Mayumi and Mokoto have been to the movies with their British friend, John. They saw "Roman Holiday" which is Mayumi's favourite movie, according to the introduction to the textbook. John asks Mayumi what she thought about the movie but she is too overwrought with emotion to answer. John becomes somewhat concerned for her well-being while Mayumi through her tears tries to explain that she loved the movie. Makoto, apparently attempting to help his wife carry on the conversation, explains to John that "My wife is very romantic, John."

In analyzing the above observations, gender bias becomes rather apparent. First, it seems that men have higher status jobs than women, this applies to Miki's and Rie's parents, as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Todd. Further, it appears that the two husbands in the book, Mr. Todd and Makoto, are more powerful than their wives because Mr. Todd decides on the rules in his house, and Makoto seems to be in charge of his household's finances. Additionally, Mrs. Todd and Mayumi (Makoto's wife) both seem more "emotional" than their husbands as both of them cry and need help from their husbands to finish the conversations they were having.

It is now clear that the two publications that my students use to learn English are rife with gender bias. Not only is the Oxford dictionary appallingly inaccurate in its definitions of sex and gender; it is also biased because it portrays men as stronger than women, because of men's genetic makeup. This gender bias is mirrored in the Passport textbook, as it portrays men as financially and emotionally stronger than women.

What is a teacher to do then? Personally, I would much prefer to have my students change their dictionary and textbook, but this is impossible as they are prescribed by the institution that I work for. The only other option then is to raise the students' awareness of the gender bias in these publications. This can be done, even with lower-level students, by asking relatively simple questions such as "Can the men in your family use the washing machine etc?", "Do you depend financially on your partner?", "Are all women crazy about shopping?" "Why is it OK for women to cry in public, but not for men?"

It is also a good idea for the teacher to tell the students about his/her own background in the conjunction with what is being taught in the particular lesson. When I taught unit 10 which teaches how to talk about one's family, I introduced my own family. I showed my students pictures of my family, and told them about my parents' jobs. My Dad was a bank manager and my Mom was a secretary, which is a traditional role division. However, since my Dad did not work as many hours as my Mom, he took care of me when I was little. My sister was a homemaker for many years, a piece of information that did not surprise my students, but when I told them that my brother was also a homemaker at one point, they were all ears.

The students love hearing about the your own background; it helps them relate to you as a person rather than "just" as their English teacher. It is also educational, because you are a precious source of real-life information. However, keep in mind, that the object of these stories is to inform the students of different lifestyles in different countries, not to attempt to persuade them of the right one!

Interestingly, teachers are now very often referred to as educators. Personally, I feel that if the term educator is to have much validity then we - women as well as men - have an ethical obligation to introduce our students to gender issues. The result may well be a richer, more harmonious environment for all of us.

Ulla Hjulmand, MA teaches English as a foreign language in Tokyo.

Oxford Advanced Dictionary, 4th Ed., A S Hornby, edited by A. P Cowie.
Passport English for International Communication,, A. Buckingham and N. Whitney, Oxford University Press 1997.
Sociology in a Changing World, William Kornblum, Harcourt Brace College Publishers 4th ed, 1997.
The bias-free word finder: A dictionary of nondiscriminatory language., R. Maggio, Beacon Press 1996
Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching, R. Freeman and B. McElhinny, Cambridge University Press, 1997
Exploring gender: Questions and Implications for English Language Education
J. Sutherland (Ed.) New York: Prentice Hall, 1994

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