Tackling Sexism in Schools and Colleges

Towards the end of a workshop conducted for school teachers, a curious phenomenon is often observed; many women teachers become restless. They sit tight anxiously clutching the handbags on their laps, steal furtive glances at their watches (or phones) to check the time, and even pointedly look towards the exit.

Many of them have to cook, clean, wash and care for their children as soon as they reach home. In contrast, most male teachers are relaxed, as post-workshop, they likely will watch television or chat with friends, waiting for dinner to be cooked and served.

This disparity is a painful paradox in Indian education. Academic institutions are seen as spaces of social transformation, including for a gender-just society. Yet, not only have teachers internalised patriarchal values and practices in their homes, but they also express and exemplify these in schools.

It is common for teachers to allocate tasks based on gender. Girls weave flowers, decorate the stage, offer bouquets to dignitaries, prepare tea for visitors and sweep the premises, whereas boys shift furniture and heavy items, make purchases and maintain accounts. Such stereotyping may seem harmless. However, its relative subtlety makes it dangerous.

Teachers work with young minds and shape their identities. If they believe men and women are different and should be treated differently, they will carry this belief to their students. It is then easier to accept that boys can play physical sports, and stay late in school, while girls should not be allowed to. Such divergent approaches reaffirm gender roles normalised by society and will discourage girls from aspiring for careers and lifestyles similar to what boys may more easily consider.

Girls are less likely to study in colleges, especially when these require travel or select ‘STEM’ subjects. They will marry earlier than boys, and have less choice in deciding whether or when to have children. Countering gender stereotyping is essential for realising our constitutional ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Female teachers are no different

Sexism goes beyond the simple idea of men oppressing women. It stems from the ideology of patriarchy — the set of beliefs that men are inherently superior to women and that women must be subservient to men. Stereotyping men as outgoing, brave, hard-working, rational and logical, and women as gentle, kind, sacrificing and emotional is widespread in our country and pushes women into roles such as the ‘gentle/great wife’ who provides continuous, unpaid, often dreary, labour for her family. This exploitative relationship is mercilessly depicted in the brilliant movie The Great Indian Kitchen.

Schools have to explicitly counter the socialisation enforced in the family, community and society. Teachers must consciously guide girls and boys to avoid gender stereotyping. When sexist behaviour is seen, teachers (male and female) need to support each other in discouraging it. Classrooms must discuss discrimination and identify strategies to address it.

Teachers need to understand that gender-based differences are ‘sociological’ and not ‘biological’ — they are human-made through beliefs and customs, and not based on natural characteristics. Women can do all activities that men do, and vice versa (except giving birth and breastfeeding children).

Hence, there is no ‘natural’ reason to prevent women from any activity or profession they would like to choose and force them to take on certain tasks like household chores, which men also must share equitably.

For this to happen, teacher professional development programmes, where teachers are encouraged to reflect on their own beliefs and practices, are required. Such programmes should help in developing ‘learning communities of teachers to collectively navigate and negotiate patriarchy in their homes and at work.

Such capacity building should include designing and implementing gender-sensitive practices in schools. Periodic ‘gender audits’ must be conducted in schools to identify regressive and progressive practices.

Teachers need to regularly remind themselves that their conditioning will influence their teaching practice, and that could be unfair to the girls (and boys) in classrooms. Teachers need to reflect on how schools can help build a gender-just society where any ‘complementing’ of tasks is not defined by gendered roles, but by the ability and willingness to take on the required role.


This article was originally published in the Deccan Herald, read it here.

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