France: Sex equality eludes textbook definition

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Only two women officially qualify for a mention in French primary school history lessons. And women and girls are stereotyped, if they are represented at all, as passive, maternal or home-based in textbooks for pupils of all ages, according to the authors of a parliamentary report on representation of men and women in school books.

Despite ministerial decrees during the past two decades which have laid down rules to ensure equality between the sexes, sexism remains rampant in many French textbooks, conclude Simone Rignault, MP for the Nivre, and Philippe Richert, senator for Bas-Rhin.

The authors say teachers, particularly at primary schools, should receive compulsory training to defeat sexual inequalities and stereotypi ng.

The first impression the books give about roles of the sexes is "mothers doing the washing up while fathers read the paper", said Mme Rignault.

Prime minister Alain Jupp commissioned the report to monitor progress on achieving equal sexual representation in the books and to identify obstacles which still need removing. The authors studied textbooks, dictionaries and other extra-curricular publications.

While the authors stress that some books do treat the sexes impartially, they say "at the end of the twentieth century inequality of treatment between men and women still exists in teaching aids which have the task of transmitting knowledge and giving pupils a snapshot of society at a given moment".

They divide books into three categories: the good, in which men and women are treated equally positively in all activities; dangerous, which portray only degraded images of women in most sectors; or old-fashioned, in which women continue to be shown in stereotypical circumstances - cooking, knitting or occupied exclusively with their children - while men are depicted working outside the home, doing odd jobs or driving cars.

Examples of blatant inequality abound in the report, with women's roles confined to those of mother or wife, domestic drudge or sex object. A book on civics described the election of a class delegate for which there were four candidates, all boys; a girl who had not actually stood got one vote, was declared to be offside and ridiculed.

Maths problems typically concerned a man buying a drill and a saw, and a woman buying meat and a Camembert.

While taking into account that there have been more French male authors than female over the centuries, Mme Rignault and M Richert complain that women are still seriously under-repres ented in literary texts - only five out of 63 writers used in a 1992 textbook were women.

A survey by lower secondary pupils in Saint-Germain-Lembron, Puy-De-Dme, on the content of history and geography textbooks showed women suckling or caring for their children, many nude women (but no naked men), or women dressed in sexy clothes - such as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel representing the period between the two world wars.

In a lesson on gender, a primary level grammar book illustrated masculine nouns with a boy, a cockerel and a book; equivalent feminine nouns were a girl, a hen and a saucepan. Children's dictionaries are guilty of giving definitions which stress strong, assertive male attributes, but passive, gentle, female qualities, says the report.

The official history curriculum for primary school, published as recently as March 1995, includes only Joan of Arc and Marie Curie as women to be studied. "Two women in all the history of France is not very many," said Mme Rignault drily.

On occasions when female stereotypes were absent, say the authors, either the result worked well, or it meant women were excluded altogether. Overall, women featured in textbooks much less often than men, though more than half the French population is female. Men and boys are given active roles - building cathedrals, or as bandits, explorers, seafarers, horsemen - while girls and women are passive, writing diaries, expressing doubt or supporting their successful male partners.

All this denies the French girl of positive role models, conclude the authors.

"Valued hardly or not at all for her qualities, she is not encouraged to participate in economic life or the history of her country."

To those who say the books are only reflecting reality, the authors point out that increasing numbers of women are holding positions of authority, a fact which could be highlighted in illustrations and examples.It notes that girls today achieve a higher educational standard than boys at all levels except the very highest scientific lite, the ultimate barrier of the glass ceiling, though their numbers here are rising.

Textbooks in France are produced by independent publishers who, competing in the open market, have wide freedom to publish what they think appropriate so long as it covers the national curriculum. Individual teachers choose which books to use, within the constraints of school budgets (which can mean lapses in the recommended four-year replacement period and books consequently becoming outdated).

After a comparison of laws in European Union countries, Norway, the United States and Canada, the authors reject the idea of strict legislation which exists elsewhere. But they say that the key lies with the French teaching profession - predominantly female, especially at primary level - who should receive compulsory training on defeating sexual inequality in school, a problem which they acknowledge exists in other areas of French society.

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