Awareness of gender inequality has been around for some time, but the problem itself has been around for so long that the subtle ways in which it persists is not often recognised.
In Việt Nam, despite efforts made to reduce gender inequality, we can see that the problem persists, for instance, in the continued preference for sons as reflected in birth imbalances. This is an in-your-face fact, but there are others that are not so obvious.
In an educational environment where the younger generation is actually being made aware of the problem, a recent study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has found gender stereotypes being reinforced.
Among 8,000 human characters that appear in grade 1-12 textbooks, only 24 per cent are women.
In fact, the study finds that the higher the level of education, the larger the gap between the number of male and female characters. The number of male characters account for 51 per cent of the total in primary school textbooks, and this rises to 67 per cent in secondary school and 81 per cent in high school.
Furthermore, the female characters are typically illustrated as doing household chores, agricultural work, taking care of pets and trees, cooking and so on. The male characters are policemen, scientists, researchers, doctors and engineers who seem to be more important and have bigger impact on society. They are also portrayed as being extroverted, the bread winner of the family and having the power to make decisions. The women are shown as introverted, weak and dependent on their husbands, the study finds.
Trần Thị Phương Nhung, director of UNESCO’s Gender Equality and Girls’ Education Initiative in Việt Nam, said that gender inequality would lead to a lot of problems if it is not tackled in a comprehensive manner.
“One of the problems being school bullying,” Nhung told Việt Nam Television. “It starts from the gender-biased mindset that makes boys think they are stronger and have the authority to give orders or to treat those weaker than them in a violent way.”
Moreover, "the gender stereotypes will increase in students’ minds if they continue being exposed to gender-stereotypical illustrations in textbooks as they grow up," she said.
“The risk is that their career choices would be confined to certain gender-specific occupations.”
Despite these warnings by gender experts, many parents are neither surprised nor upset by the study’s findings. Trần Văn Vĩnh, father of a third grader, said he found the portrayals of male and female characters in textbooks “true to what’s happening in society”.
“I have no problems if women are portrayed as doing ‘men’s jobs’ in textbooks, but I think in reality it’s different,” he said.
“Some occupations require the physical strength of men which women don’t have, like manual labour or police work,” he said. “Similarly, boys can grow up choosing to become dancers, but their bodies can’t be as flexible as girls’.”
Vĩnh also does not think being exposed to gender-stereotypical textbook illustrations would affect his child’s choice of career.
“It may affect the kids’ thinking, but when they grow up and know more about themselves, they will choose the job that suits them using their free will,” he said.
Trần Thu Thủy, mother of an eleventh grader, also found the study’s findings “normal”, but said they only fit the old Vietnamese society in which women played a minor role and did not have a say even in domestic issues.
“Literature is a reflection of life, and since the textbooks haven’t improved much in years, it is understandable that the characters are a bit outdated,” she said.
“However, I think that as society is changing and a lot of women are claiming top positions and working in male-dominated fields, textbook writers will recognise that and make changes accordingly,” she said.
So, parents are not alarmed. What about the students?
I spoke to several students in primary and secondary schools and realized they barely noticed the gap between the number of male and female characters, or gender biases.
Dương Thanh Thảo, an eleventh grader, only noticed that most of the excerpts in textbooks were from literary works written by male authors.
“If there are female figures they are characters in the texts, like Thúy Vân and Thúy Kiều in Truyền Kiều (The Tale of Kiều) by Nguyễn Du, whom I can’t identify with,” she said.
“Putting more works by female authors into textbooks and portraying female characters in a variety of occupations will help diversify our perspectives,” she said. “It would help us be more confident in striving to become who we want to be.”
Personally, despite being struck by the big gap between the number of male and female characters in textbooks, I feel that the signs of gender inequality here are very subtle, and it is difficult to measure the effect it has on students at the subconscious level.
Textbooks are only a part of education, and education is only part of the environment in which an individual is raised. I believe our interactions within our families and people that we meet as we grow up with have more of an impact than textbook reading.
A young woman or man can grow up being exposed to textbooks’ gender biases but not internalise them if she/he was raised in a gender sensitive environment.
During my teenage years it was common for my sister and me to see Dad staying home at night while Mom was out for business meetings, or Dad folding the laundry while Mom was making or taking business phone calls. Growing up in this environment taught me that the roles men and women play in family and in society are, to a certain extent, interchangeable.
So, while I think that upcoming textbook reforms should do something drastic about the gender stereotypes that we are unwittingly reinforcing, a far more important thing is for parents to be aware of their role as role models.
They should not impose gender stereotypes on their children, but if parents themselves, father and mother, subscribe to them, we have some problem.
A problem without a textbook solution. — VNS