How to approach teaching gender equality to boys and girls

By Fatma Özdemir Uluç

23 February 2017 - 21:00

Fatma Özdemir Uluç, who led a British Council-supported study into gender equality in Turkish schools, tells us how teachers can show children that boys and girls are equal.

What's the most effective way to talk to adults about gender equality?

We start by talking to them about children. Our main argument is that every child has a right to reach their full potential, and gender inequality prevents this by limiting what they can and can't do. Once we explain that that’s why we have to do things differently, then the conversation becomes more open and interesting.

Second, we show how people unconsciously reinforce gender roles. Normally, teachers will protest that they treat both sexes the same. Our challenge is to make them aware that they often behave differently towards boys and girls – perhaps without realising it – and reveal how this behaviour affects their students.

How do you start the conversation?

We asked teachers what they called the children they teach in nursery and primary schools, and found out that boys are commonly referred to as ‘my son’ while girls are often ‘my beautiful daughter’. These are used as general terms of endearment for all young children in southern Turkey (an equivalent would be people calling boys ‘son’ or ‘sport’, and girls ‘sweetie’ or ‘my angel’), but unwittingly, it also forms clear ideas in the children’s heads that they are distinct from each other because of their gender. Adults often use language and adjectives that link very strongly to gender bias.

We also asked teachers how they select students for after-school activities, and found that children are encouraged to choose clubs that 'fit' their gender. Almost all the girls would choose fashion club, and the boys would end up at a plane-making class, or something similar. The child's choice would be heavily influenced by teachers and parents.

I experienced this myself, when my four-year-old daughter came home from pre-school and said, ‘Mum, girls cannot play basketball, right?’ Even at this young age, she had this impression – and she was checking with me. We want all boys and girls to be given a chance to try everything. That way, they can work out what they enjoy.

We look through the teachers' textbooks with them to find examples of gender bias. We found this exercise to be the most helpful way for teachers to understand what gender equality is. In one third-grade textbook, we found a picture of a family doing the house chores together, which looked very positive at first. But when we looked at the speech bubbles attached to the family, the other family members are all looking to the mother to lead: the father is asking what he should do next, and the boy is looking for approval from his mother. So in a subtle way, women are still shown as responsible for household chores.

Do all teaching materials need to be updated as gender-neutral?

Updated books would help to improve the understanding of gender equality in schools. But even if the content of the textbooks does not change, teachers can still point these examples out as examples of gender inequality. This encourages children to think much more critically about the content they read, which is even more important.

What specific exercises can teachers do with children?

We developed a card game where you can match female and male figures doing the same profession, such as doctors and scientists. We adapted this for pre-school children as a colouring exercise, where they can colour the matching cards.

Remember ‘snakes and ladders’? Well, we imagined this as a gender game. Children are given statements related to gender: either positive messages, such as 'everyone has a right to education', 'it is up to us to treat everyone equally', and 'everyone can do household chores'; or negative messages like 'it is more important for boys to go to school', 'male students are lazier', and 'girls and boys cannot play the same games together'.

The children either move forwards up the ladders or backwards down the snakes – depending on whether they agree or disagree with each statement. The aim is to replace negative messages with positive ones, so children who find themselves at the top of a snake have the chance to change the negative message into a positive one. If they do, they get to roll the dice for another turn. This game was particularly popular.

How do you approach this with older students?

We also worked with high-school students, who responded really positively to the exercises we gave them. For example, in literature classes, we introduced an activity on proverbs and idioms, which are extremely well-loved and popular in Turkey. We found many examples of gender bias in Turkish proverbs such as 'a boy grows up to be strong, a girl grows up to be nothing', 'if they say there is a wedding in the sky, women would try to build a ladder', and 'it is the female bird that builds the nest'. We talked about where these perceptions on men and women's roles in society came from, sometimes rewriting them to be more neutral and progressive.

We also rewrote some popular stories and fairy tales. One school we worked with put on a play about Cinderella, casting a boy in the lead role to find out how this changed the story. We talked about the importance of girls and boys having lots of different options in life. Not every girl has to wait for a prince to save her.

Sports are also important. You can very easily see the discrimination here between boys and girls in the options available to them. Boys can play football, but it is very rare to see a girls’ team. Even basketball is seen as a boy’s sport, so as part of the project, we helped set up girls' football and basketball teams to give the students choices. We also built mixed teams, so everyone could play together – often for the first time.

Why is teaching gender equality important in Turkey?

Turkish school textbooks don’t have a single woman visualised or mentioned in the text as a politician. How can you expect to have women represented equally in parliament, when girls are never told that that is an option for them? We have policies about gender equality in writing, and legislation more or less in line with international commitments – but there is still no change.

Turkish women have had the vote since 1934 and have the same legal rights as men, but they remain far from equal. In fact, even the term gender equality is divisive in Turkey. The government prefers the term ‘gender fairness’ to reflect its views that women and men are not ‘truly equal’. More than half (60 per cent) of Turkish young women do not complete upper-secondary education, and Turkey ranked 131st out of 145 countries in the World Economic Forum's gender equality index.

What was it like talking to schools and teachers in Turkey about gender?

The whole issue of gender equality is very new in Turkey, and our target audiences were in remote, rural and conservative areas. Education staff were afraid to do something which might cause controversy, and were not even aware of Turkey's international commitments on gender equality. Turkey was an early adopter of these commitments, but the UN has criticised the extent to which they have been implemented.

So, first we had to have a discussion about exactly what we meant by this term in an educational context, and why it is so important for Turkish society. We explained that when women work outside the home, it boosts the economy (Turkey wants to be a top ten economy by 2023, the centenary of the Turkish republic). We also discussed Turkey's worrying rate of violence against women, and how this damages families and communities. Once you create a common understanding of what gender equality means, then you can get people on board.

What training already exists for teachers?

Most teachers have had no training in gender issues in education. This is the way they’ve grown up and always lived, so they don’t see any problem when, at school, girls clean the classrooms and boys play sport outside. They are used to seeing boys get involved in science activities, while girls sit to the side of the lab and chat, not encouraged to take part. For teachers in many parts of Turkey, this is not disturbing at all. It is normal – and this is why training them is so important.

If there is no equality standard in your private or professional life, it’s very hard to understand that there even is an issue. So at first, we experienced resistance. People were confused about what we were trying to do – whether it was about feminism, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. They were not sure what ‘gender’ meant, so the ‘equality’ part was hard to explain at first. Once this was clear, teachers could appreciate why it was important.

Teachers and teacher trainers need to understand gender issues, get rid of their prejudices and realise why they should not transmit these to their students. Three or five days of training is a good start, but the subject of gender should form a central part of teacher training before they go into the classroom.

How can we encourage parents to reinforce gender equality at home?

Our main dispute at the start of the project was the role that parents should play. The Turkish education ministry suggested that we should target parents, rather than teachers: it might be too late to focus on gender equality once children have started school at age six, as their attitudes would already be shaped by their families.

But we wanted to work the other way round. We knew that if we targeted schools, the students could pass on the messages to their parents. That is why we always included parents' meetings and training sessions in our campaign, although again, we faced many challenges. Depending on the province, either the mothers or the fathers came to the meeting, but never together. In Urfa in south-eastern Turkey, for example, almost all our participants were men. And once we were working with secondary-school-aged students, it became almost impossible to bring either parent into the fold.

Here's an example. One of our social science teachers set homework asking students to observe their family for a week, and find out who was getting the most tired. A sixth-grade boy reported back that his older sister and his mother were the most tired, because they were doing everything in the house: preparing the food and doing all the chores. Even though his older sister was preparing for her university exam, she was doing all the work – even down to bringing him his tea. The teacher decided to have a parents' evening and carefully discuss ways to treat boys and girls equally. Families are crucial, but to break this vicious circle, schools are the right entry point, through which to raise questions.

Boys also face harmful stereotypes. How can we support boys?

This was an important part of our project. The Turkish education ministry is sceptical about feminism, and thought at first we wanted to ignore boys. We explained that gender inequality is not just about women and girls. It also negatively affects men and boys.

We told them about the link between gender bias and violent behaviour in boys, especially violence against women. This is sadly a significant problem in Turkish society. Domestic violence is related to culturally supported attitudes about who should be in control in a relationship.  When we were able to demonstrate the clear societal consequences of the current gender imbalance, the ministry fully embraced the project.

Teachers were also surprised by what our research revealed about their behaviour towards boys in the classroom. For example, boys said that teachers had a no-tolerance attitude to their ‘bad’ behaviour, while when the girls acted in the same way the teachers did not react at all. The boys felt that they picked up the labels of being ‘naughty’ and ‘useless’ quickly and easily, making them feeling side-lined and neglected. We need to focus on boys just as much as girls, and make sure that no one feels left out or favoured.

Download the teacher training toolkits in English.

Find out more about the ‘Promoting Gender Equality in Education’ (ETCEP) programme to train teachers and education ministry officials, which a British Council-led consortium ran between 2014 to 2016. The EU and the Turkish government co-funded the consortium. 

For the chance to win an iPad mini, take part in the Women in STEM competition for Turkish students who want to study Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) subjects, or are considering a career in STEM. The deadline is 8 March 2017.

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