Illustration: USAID/Uganda School Health and Reading Program
Include illustrations depicting female and male characters in comparable roles.
This is a cross-posting from the USAID Education in Crisis and Conflict Network,

Teaching and learning materials have a powerful impact on children because the images and language they contain can influence a child’s understanding of the world—and themselves. Especially in environments that are prone to conflict and crisis, those materials can have a compounding effect and help mitigate or contribute to conflict in the society.  In support of the goal to promote inclusivity and equality in teaching and learning materials, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Bureau for Africa has developed A Guide for Strengthening Gender Equality and Inclusiveness in Teaching and Learning Materials, which includes many aspects of how gender equality and inclusion can be strengthened.

Please read on for a synthesis of the Guide and additional links to also a French version.

Strengthening Gender Equality and Inclusion in Teaching and Learning Materials

Gender guide coverThe teacher manuals and student books used in a classroom do more than just facilitate a lesson; they transmit messages—either subtly or blatantly—that can shape the attitudes and perceptions of learners. The extent to which materials present characters in positive or negative ways, in stereotypical or non-stereotypical roles, or in culturally productive or non-productive ways is communicated to students, both through text and illustrations. The materials that teachers and students use in a classroom can be useful tools for instilling equality and inclusion in education, or they can also be stumbling blocks to doing so.

Research on the prevalence of equitable and non-equitable representations of characters in curricular materials consistently concludes that that improvement is needed regarding how characters are presented.

  • A comparative review conducted by Blumberg (2007) of materials from Romania, Syria, and India found that of the 359 occupations presented in primary-level textbooks, only 54 (15%) depicted women in salaried jobs.

  • A similar study of primary-level textbooks in Syria found approximately the same proportion—among 463 salaried jobs in the textbooks, only 74 (16%) of the positions were held by female characters (Blumberg, 2007).[1]

  • Additionally, a study on the Let’s Learn English project in Kenya by Kobia (2009) found that male characters were more often represented than female characters in illustrations (i.e., 55.8% for men and boys versus 4.2% for women and girls).[2]

  • Even when represented in materials, female and male characters are often portrayed differently. One study of textbooks in the United States found that male characters were much more likely than female characters to be portrayed as aggressive, argumentative, and competitive (Evans and Davies, 2000), [3]:

Underrepresentation and bias are also present in the depiction of individuals with disabilities and other societal subgroups such as religious or ethnic minorities, socio-economic status, class, political orientation, and language.

Strengthening equality and inclusion in education is explicitly mentioned as a goal of several key education initiatives, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Dakar Framework for Action, and Education for All. Improving how women, girls, and underrepresented groups are depicted in teaching and learning materials is an important part of that effort.

Clearly, support and guidance are needed to push inclusion in teaching and learning materials. A new guide developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Bureau for Africa–Education provides a way forward. The Guide for Strengthening Gender Equality and Inclusiveness in Teaching and Learning Materials (henceforth referred to as the Guide) provides important facts, insights, and guidance to help address the need for improved inclusivity in teaching and learning materials, particularly at the primary grade level. The Guide also provides worksheets for those developing or revising texts to evaluate the inclusiveness of the teaching and learning materials. The following paragraphs describe each of the key takeaways across four thematic areas: equal frequency of representation, gender equitable and inclusive illustrations, gender equitable and inclusive language, and gender equitable and transformational roles.

Gender Equitable Story Titles
Alternate the introduction of female and male characters.

Equal Frequency of Representation: Characters in teaching and learning materials should represent the social distribution of the society in which students will use the materials. Most societies consist of approximately 50% male and female residents, so characters in textbooks should be represented equally between the sexes. In addition, individuals with various physical, cognitive, and/or sensory disabilities should be depicted in proportion to the frequency in the general population. When a variety of languages and ethnic groups are present, these groups should be represented according to the distribution in the society. Simply including characters from each subgroup is an important step, but characters from all groups should be portrayed in positive and inclusive ways. The summary of titles shared here is an example of alternating the introduction of male and female characters in an early primary grade textbook.

Gender Equitable and Inclusive Illustrations: As children are learning to read, images can be particularly powerful because they are often more attractive than text. Careful consideration is required for illustrations during the process of developing and revising teaching and learning materials. Illustrations should represent all subgroups and their distribution in society—both sexes should be included equally, individuals with disabilities should be portrayed as approximately 15% of the population, and other social subgroups should be portrayed in proportion to their frequency in society. Illustrations of individuals in the social subgroups should depict characters in similar roles and should be of approximately the same size. The image here from USAID’s Uganda School Health and Reading Program shows both a female teacher (on left) and a male teacher (on right), thereby showing students that both men and women can be teachers.

Gender Equitable and Inclusive Language: Seemingly small language cues can have a large impact on inclusiveness in materials. For example, in languages in which gender is encoded into the pronoun system, such as in English, it is best to alternate the pronouns for characters in which gender is not specified. The text should alternate using “she” and “he” as well as “him” and “her.” Another area for consideration in equitable language is the use of “person-first” language, for example, individuals with a disability should be described as “a boy who is blind” instead of “a blind boy.”

Illustration with person in a wheelchair
Illustration: Jerry Rosembert Moise
Portray a person with a disability in a role typically attributed to those without disabilities.

Gender Equitable and Transformational Roles: The portrayal of traditional and non-traditional societal roles should be balanced in teaching and learning materials. Relationships between boys and girls and men and women, as well as individuals from subgroups, and individuals with and without disabilities should be portrayed as participating in decisions and activities equally. For example, in the illustration here, a person with a disability is a leader in the community, just as a person without a disability can be a leader in the community. Images can also show non-traditional roles, such as a father caring for an infant.

The Guide also includes a rubric for evaluating the inclusiveness of materials under development or already in use.

USAID is eager to ensure that the Guide reaches and is used by laypersons and experts in curriculum development, classroom instruction, education administration and policy, and others involved in developing and reviewing classroom-based teaching and learning materials. Please download a copy of the Guide in French and English.

[1] Blumberg, R.L. 2007. Gender Bias in Textbooks: A Hidden Obstacle on the Road to Gender Equality in Education. Background paper prepared for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2008. Available at

[2] Kobia, J.M. 2009. Femininity and masculinity in English primary school textbooks in Kenya. The International Journal of Language Society and Culture 28:57–71.

[3] Evans, L., and K. Davies. 2000. No sissy boys here: A content analysis of the representation of masculinity in elementary school reading textbooks. Sex Roles 42(3/4):255–256.

About the Expert

Jennae is Director of Teaching and Learning within the International Education Division at RTI.