US textbooks teach gender stereotypes


Biology books used in US high schools sometimes convey outdated ideas about gender. © SDI Productions/iStock

Textbooks not only determine what young people learn, but also shape their worldview. It is therefore particularly important that they convey scientific knowledge correctly. However, at least in the USA, this is apparently not always the case. An analysis of six widely used high school biology textbooks shows that none of the books make a scientifically accurate distinction between biological and social gender. The books also convey overly simplified and stereotypical ideas about the influence of genes on our characteristics.

In science, biological sex and social gender identity, gender, are separate concepts. In addition, biology knows numerous variations of the clear either/or of “male” and “female”: numerous animals such as snails and fish change their biological sex over the course of their lives or are male and female at the same time; In many reptiles, environmental factors such as temperature determine whether the eggs develop into males or females; And there are also individuals in humans whose biological sex cannot be clearly assigned at birth.

Defects in textbooks

A team led by Brian Donovan from the non-profit organization BSCS Science Learning in Colorado Springs has now analyzed the extent to which biology textbooks convey this diversity. The researchers selected six biology books that were published between 2009 and 2016 and are used in an estimated two-thirds of high school introductory biology courses in the United States. From these books, they analyzed the chapters that dealt with genetics or gender. They report their results in a debate article in the journal Science.

“Our analysis shows that the textbooks deviate from the established scientific knowledge about sex and gender,” report the researchers. Not a single one of the works evaluated made a distinction between biological and social gender. “Instead, the account is more in line with essentialism, a view that assumes that all living things are determined by a fixed, inherent essence. When it comes to sex and gender, this assumption has a number of negative consequences, including stereotyping and discrimination.”

Essentialist concepts

The detailed content analysis of a total of 362 thematically relevant sections from the books showed that the textbooks also support other essentialist concepts. This is the assumption that, due to their genetics, men have certain masculine characteristics and women have certain feminine characteristics, even beyond the physical, although there are few individual differences within the sexes. “This contradicts the scientific knowledge that complex characteristics such as skills and interests are primarily influenced by socio-cultural factors,” criticizes the research team. “In addition, it is not taken into account that the variability within the gender groups is greater than between the gender groups.”

Donovan and his colleagues point out that it is not uncommon for textbooks to lag behind the current state of science and to present ideas that were once thought to be correct but then turned out to be incomplete. “For example, many biology books to this day do not convey that genetics is more complicated than the inheritance patterns that Gregor Mendel found in pea varieties in the 19th century,” the team writes. It has long been clear that the rules he established represent a special case of inheritance.

The fact that many books take up essentialist ideas regarding gender cannot even be justified by outdatedness. “Essentialism is not a scientific model, but rather an oversimplified lay opinion that contradicts the scientific consensus on sex and gender,” says Donovan. “Something like this should have no place in biology classes.”

Recommendations for improvements

From the researchers’ perspective, the results are a call to action. “It is important that high school biology curricula be revised so that they reflect accurate scientific findings rather than false assumptions that promote gender stereotypes and discrimination,” says co-author Andrei Cimpian of New York University. Changing curricula and textbooks could help reduce prejudices in American society and provide a science-based perspective.

“To achieve this, school textbooks should make a scientifically correct distinction between biological sex and social gender,” the team recommends. “To illustrate the complexity of human gender variations, they could also include the phenomenon of intersexuality. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they could convey that traits stereotypically associated with a gender or gender group cannot be explained by genes alone. The story is much more complicated.”

Source: Brian Donovan (BSCS Science Learning in Colorado Springs, USA) et al., Science, doi: 10.1126/science.adi1188

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