The Teacher Who Removes Gender Stereotypes From School Books In Italy: "Schools Do Not Keep Pace With Social Changes"

Mothers in the kitchen, fathers at work. Messy and very brave boys, shy and orderly girls. Men who can choose their profession: astronomers, lawyers, postmen, cooks … Women who are full-time mothers or, sometimes, teachers or hairdressers.

Are they just stereotypes from the 50s? It may sound like it, but until a few years ago it was not uncommon to find them in almost every primary school textbook in Italy. Even today, browsing through these ancient books seems to be taking a trip back in time. But it is only in the last few years that some textbook publishers have completely changed course.

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“Today it is impossible to write a textbook without taking into account the gender perspective. It is positive that people are taking this change seriously,” says Irene Biemmi, specialist in gender education and professor at the University of Florence.

For four years, she has also worked as an advisor to Obiettivo Parità (“Objective Equality”), a project of two Italian publishers, Rizzoli Education and Centro Studi Erickson, which have adopted a series of internal rules aimed at creating, writing and illustrating textbooks that represent men and women equally.

For your book A sexist education: gender stereotypes in elementary school textbooks, you have studied textbooks published between 1997 and 2002. What have you discovered?

First, an underrepresentation of women and girls: only 37% of the stories that appear in textbooks have a woman as the protagonist. This shows to what extent the latent sexism in these books can have great repercussions. In workshops that I regularly give in schools, I ask girls why they think there are so few women in these books, and they give some answers like, “Obviously, they are less important.

Plus, stereotypes abound. In these stories, very few women are active: all the girls are shy, orderly, and good students; while boys are brave and restless, sometimes even a little aggressive. It’s like diving into the archetypes of an ancient time.

Have things improved now?

Looking at current textbooks, I’d say yes. But in 2016, two researchers, Cristiano Corsini and Irene Scierri, used a similar analysis system to examine the most recently published textbooks and their conclusions were quite bleak, it seemed that things had gone downhill.

Why does it seem so difficult to get rid of gender stereotypes from textbooks?

Because the editors are aimed at a specific audience, the school, which has a hard time accepting the changes. Italian schools are a backward mirror of what is happening in the country, and they are unable to keep up with all the changes that are currently taking place in our society. Let’s not forget that, on the one hand, most teachers were trained in the 70s and 80s, and therefore they bring this culture to their classrooms.

On the other hand, there is no specific training on gender issues for either older or younger teachers. There is also an emotional dimension to take into account. A mother in an apron giving a snack to children, daring children, girls playing with dolls … it is an almost mythical representation and, at the same time, very reassuring. Ditching this culture and coming up with something new is easier said than done.

But it is precisely what it tries to do Obiettivo Parità. You are their main advisor, what is your role exactly?

Led the team that defined the practical guidelines for our editors to use as a reference point. Now, my job is to thoroughly review each book, page by page.

What does that task entail?

I examine each manuscript carefully, asking myself questions like: how many authors are included? Are the main roles of the stories evenly distributed between men and women? Is there a stereotype? I look at the book as a whole, I don’t focus on a specific part.

If I find any part of the content that may seem problematic, for example because there are obvious or unpleasant stereotypes, I point it out to the editors. But overall, I try to get a general impression of the book.

Then I move on to a rereading of the language. For example, I remove all cases of male gender in the task instructions. Instead of a generic “debate with your classmates”, I prefer to use “debate with your classmates” or “with your class”. In the end, I send my suggestions to the deputy editor, whose job it is to correct any imbalances. A few months later, I receive another updated copy and make the final correction, this time also taking into account the photos and illustrations. Then, and only then, when everything is in place, is the book sent to the printer.

Is your job primarily to remove, rather than to add?

No, it is not enough to eliminate stereotypes; our goal is to bring something new, what is known as “counter-narratives.” But how they are used is critical. For me, the best book is not the one where all the mothers are astronauts and all the fathers are busy cooking dinner in the kitchen, where all the boys are shy and all the girls are like Pippi Longstocking.

The best book is the one that can offer a multifaceted representation of reality, because cultural diversity is the springboard to achieve gender equality. It is not that the books offer an upside-down view of the world; that would be completely artificial. In our world, many mothers are scientists, lawyers or portfolios, just as many boys are sensitive and many girls are athletes, why not give visibility to them and to them too?

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