Carole Brugeilles

explains why it is important to analyse gender representations in school textbooks

© Ined - Colette Confortès

Carole Brugeilles, a professor at the Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre, is currently working on secondment at INED with funding from the iPOPs labex [laboratory of excellence]. Her research areas are fertility, reproductive health, gender relations and socialisation.

(Interview conducted in October 2013).

Why examine school textbooks from a demography perspective on gender?

Textbooks have elicited a great deal of controversy and passions often run high on the subject-for good reason. The choice of what knowledge to put in them, the way that knowledge is formulated, are highly sensitive matters. Above and beyond the "encyclopaedic" information they contain, textbooks convey an understanding of the world, models of social behaviour, norms and values. They are therefore crucial tools in education and socialisation. Their potential to promote gender equality is widely recognized. Moreover, very nearly all countries, including France, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which recommends "the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women" in school textbooks. But regardless of political will in this area, much of what gets conveyed in school textbooks about equality between the sexes and gender roles does not get explicitly formulated. Given that education and gender are key variables when it comes to explaining social and demographic behaviour, it is important to analyse that implicit content.

How can textbooks be analyzed from this angle?

The method used/I use was developed jointly with Isabelle Cromer and Sylvie Cromer. It is based on the concepts of social and gender representations. The idea is to analyse social representations of feminine and masculine, not to over-focus on sexism or sexist stereotypes. The method takes inspiration from demography and involves doing a "census" of the "persons" that appear in textbooks. A set of characteristics is noted for each such figure: their family and work functions or roles, the actions they take, the objects they own, their character, the relationships they have. This makes it possible to analyse the fictional "population" in textbooks. At INED an analysis of primary school mathematics textbooks is currently underway.

What are some of the social representations that get transmitted or passed along by mathematics textbooks?

To make the learning material more immediately accessible and attractive, math lessons and exercises are constructed around fictional people and their actions: children compare how many marbles they each have; an adult makes purchases or wonders about their petrol consumption, etc. These characters incarnate social representations of masculine and feminine, and through them textbooks convey images of what it is to be a woman, a man, a boy, a girl. These social representations are developed in a complex way, through the combining of several elements. For example, in four series of mathematics textbooks used in primary school in France, our/my "census" of the population of fictional characters brings to light considerable numerical imbalances. Two constants are observed: there are many little boy characters and very few adult women characters. These textbooks reflect a genuine denial of the presence of women. What’s more, there are significant variations in their characteristics and sharp differences in how children and adults are portrayed. Children-boys and girls-appear similar in many respects, due in part to their shared primary-schooler status, which has the effect of "neutralizing" them. However, in some cases subtle variations work to differentiate boys and girls, and those differences are seldom favourable to girls. Gender differences are much more pronounced for adults. The image of women in the textbooks can hardly be said to reflect the reality of their "double day" in the workplace and at home whereas the image of men fully represents the "new men" heavily publicized in the media, strongly invested in their work or career but also quite present in the extra-occupational spheres of family and leisure activities. These textbooks, then, do not reflect reality, nor do they really foster promotion of equality between the sexes. And these observations are not confined to the mathematics textbooks used in France. They are confirmed by different textbook corpuses in quite diverse disciplines and countries; also for other types of writing for young people, such as picture books, novels and the youth press.