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Women and non-Western characters underrepresented in secondary school textbooks

Textbooks in the Netherlands contain significantly fewer female than male characters and relatively few characters from a non-Western background. They also contain implicit stereotyping. This is what Judi Mesman, Professor of the Interdisciplinary Study of Societal Challenges at Leiden University, has discovered in a study of all Dutch and mathematics textbooks used in the first year of secondary schools in the Netherlands.

Judi Mesman and her team research what children learn about gender and ethnicity from the world around them. From their parents, for instance, but also from textbooks or children’s books. Mesman: ‘If you feel that your textbook is about you, this motivates you. It gives you the idea that you too can do it.’ Previous research has shown, for instance, that girls understand chemistry texts better if these are accompanied by pictures of female scientists rather than only pictures of male ones. And if girls coloured in a picture of a girl with a doll before taking an arithmetic test, they didn’t perform as well in the test as they did after doing a neutral task. This influence is also called stereotype threat.

‘It is important that children recognise themselves in their textbooks. It has already been shown that girls understand chemistry texts better if these are accompanied by pictures of female scholars.’ 

Fewer women and fewer women with a job

Publishers sent Mesman and her team copies of all the textbooks that are used in the first year of secondary school for the subjects of Dutch and mathematics. She discovered that women are systematically underrepresented in these books. Characters with a job were much more likely to be men than women, and the women with a job had fewer different jobs than the men did. Women were somewhat overrepresented among characters in a parental role and characters doing a domestic task. Men were somewhat overrepresented among characters who were scholars or top athletes, or who were doing a technical activity.  

Fewer non-Western characters in texts than in pictures

With regard to ethnicity, Mesman compared the percentage of characters in the books from a non-Western background with the percentage of the Dutch population that comes from a non-Western background: according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS), this is 13.4%. Mesman discovered that the texts in the textbooks lagged way behind: even with a very broad definition of ‘non-Western names,’ only 9% of the characters were non-Western. Surprisingly enough, this was much higher in the pictures in the books, at 16%. ‘It would appear that those providing illustrations for the books are more aware of depicting different ethnic backgrounds,’ says Mesman. ‘Perhaps because a picture says more than a name in a text.’

Stereotypical black athlete

As regards stereotyping, characters with a job were often from a Western background, and if non-Western characters had a job, this was on average a job of lower social status. ‘But the positive stereotype of the black athlete jumped out: among the athletes in the books, more were black than would be expected from the total number of black characters.’

‘There are significantly fewer female than male characters in the mathematics and Dutch textbooks for the first year of secondary school. Non-Western characters are also strongly underrepresented.’

Draw attention to implicit associations

What do these figures say about our textbooks? That’s a difficult one, says Mesman. ‘We mainly saw implicit and subtle underrepresentation and stereotyping. Obvious stereotypes were rare. But children are very sensitive to subtle, hidden messages. Our research shows that stereotypes have also crept into textbooks, albeit unconsciously. Now it is up to the publishers to make a conscious decision about how they want to deal with sex and ethnicity in their books.’

Publishers to act on results

The different publishers sent Mesman a total of 16 mathematics and 17 Dutch books. ‘The publishers cooperated with this study from the outset because they too are keen to hear the results,’ says Stephan de Valk, Director of GEU, the branch organisation for providers of learning resources and tests. ‘The publishers will discuss the results with their authors so that the unconscious stereotyping referred to in the reports can be avoided in future.’

The complete research reports will be available on Judi Mesman’s website from 13 November 2019.

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