By Marina Mahathir,
The other day there was this interesting article in The Star. It's not anything women's groups have not known but now we have empirical evidence for it. It just goes to show that stereotypes about both boys and girls benefit neither.
The Star Online - Education
Sunday September 27, 2009
Boy, it's a tough world for girls!
By CHOI TUCK WO
The world has come a long way since the days of calling for the emancipation of women but gender bias is prevalent in many nations, including Malaysia.
BOYS seem to fall behind girls in Malaysia. And it's not for lack of attention.
On the contrary, their preferential treatment in school and at home may have contributed to their somewhat lax attitude towards their studies.
While most girls see education as their passport to the future, boys appear to take it for granted, according to a study on gender bias in schools.
Yet despite this subtle gender discrimination at almost all levels - in the classroom, textbooks and even sports and games - the boys appear to be outsmarted by girls.
With most leaders and role models being men, it is little wonder that boys harbour a surreal feeling that they can do well in life even if they don't excel in education.
"The compelling factor to perform well in studies doesn't exist for boys as much as they do for girls," explains Dr Jyotsna Jha, one of the authors of a new book, Exploring the Bias: Gender and Stereotyping in Secondary Schools.
Published by the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, the 272-page book covering seven countries including Malaysia showed that schools in general reflected and reinforced gender disparities.
The survey involved two groups, the first on India, Pakistan and Nigeria, where girls lag behind boys and the second on Malaysia, Seychelles, Samoa and Trinidad and Tobago, where boys struggled behind girls.
As a follow-up to the study, a second book The Gender-Responsive School: An Action Guide has also been published, providing teachers and head teachers guidance on how to make schools more gender-responsive.
Both reports come in the wake of a survey by the Lancaster University Management School that sex discrimination in the hiring and promotion of women is still a thorny issue in Malaysia. (The Star Eurofile July 26, 2009 under the heading 'Man, it's tough going for women'.)
Dr Jha notes that most researchers usually looked at the issue of access to education, but they wanted to examine how gender bias worked when children get to school.
"The rising trend of boys' under-achievement has been deliberated among Commonwealth countries over the years," she says, adding that in Malaysia, boys did not perform as well as girls.
She cites a number of reasons, including the fact that they see education differently despite getting better treatment in school and at home.
Dr Jha draws attention to the stereotypical view on domestic roles for girls like sweeping the floor, looking after siblings and washing dishes while boys almost had a free hand in what they do.
Hence, girls feel resentful about the favouritism towards the boys, who prefer to get involved in mat rempit (motorcycle racing) activities, hang out at cybercafes and lepak (loiter) at shopping malls.
"Such a bias attitude generally existed in all seven countries, not just Malaysia, but with slight changes in forms," she says.
For instance, in Pakistan, Nigeria and parts of India, their only focus was on boys and education was still considered 'more manly', she adds.
She also touches briefly on the conclusion that there's evidence of gender discrimination at almost all levels in Malaysia. It can be seen in the attitudes, thinking and behaviour of students, teachers, and principals.
"Even school games and sports are highly geared towards boys' interests, while library books focus mostly on male personalities," she notes.
Dr Jha says they came up with a second book which provides a practical guide to support schools to change and address certain stereotypes.
"We had teachers who went through the whole process of teaching certain things differently, so that both boys and girls take more interest in them," she says.
Malaysian women's rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah says that educational institutions must recognise that the 'Education for All' policy did not mean that girls and boys would automatically have equal access (to education) and develop similarly.
She says girls and boys have adapted differently, have different expectations and have been exposed to different social expectations and pressures.
"This gender neutral policy must be supported with a deeper analysis of how it impacts boys and girls," says Maria, who undertook the study on Malaysia based on a gender analysis of classroom and other processes in schools.
She says that where girls might do well in studies, the support was about breaking the stereotype values that still viewed girls as subordinate, hence their contribution was seen as supplementary and not key to the nation's development.
Maria, who conducted the study on four secondary schools in Sungai Petani, Kedah, speaks of the 'unwritten rule' in two of them, where only boys were appointed as head prefects and class monitors.
"School text books are also good examples of the kind of sexism that is unintentionally practised," she says, adding that both teachers and students hold stereotyped ideas on the roles of boys and girls.
On girls' roles, she says they were taught to take on responsibilities as part of growing up and were also taught to multi-task.
In contrast, boys are often excused from housework, given freedom to have fun and socialise with friends.
"Basically, they're free from responsibility. At times, society and their families excuse boys for behaving irresponsibly through escape valves," she says.
These have given rise to different expectations being placed on boys as their parents, and to a large extent society, expect them to be bread winners, hence leaders, while girls' roles are supplementary and domestic in nature.
Such different expectations may have pushed girls to do well in their studies, while boys may feel that even if they do not excel, they have alternatives and are still regarded as leaders and heads of households.
Maria admits that her respondents were concerned about the discrimination, but have not been able to change it.
Most of the girls, she says, accepted the unequal relationship as given and static. This sentiment is stronger with those from the rural schools.
"However, I remember three respondents stating they will not accord such treatment to their children nor will they allow them to discriminate against women".
She says that so far, there had been little change in the education system where gender issues were concerned.
In teacher training courses, such concepts and challenges need to be raised, discussed and teachers have to be taught on how to bring about change.
But there is no gender or women's rights course taught in teacher training or in refresher courses, she says.
Maria says women groups in Malaysia had to constantly fight for sexuality programmes to be taught in schools but they have not as yet been implemented.
She believes that discrimination and violence against women still remain the country's biggest challenges.
The two books are available at; MDC
Book Distributors Sdn Bhd, MDC Building, 2717 & 2718, Jalan Permata 4, Taman Permata, 53300 Ulu Klang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
(tel: 603-4108-6600), University Bookstore (M) Sdn Bhd, 43, Jalan 34/154, Taman Delima, 56000 Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (tel: 603-9100-1860) and major book stores in Malaysia.