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Commentary: Are Indian children growing up to be gender insensitive?
August 3, 2017 / 3:15 PM / 4 months ago

Commentary: Are Indian children growing up to be gender insensitive?

With a mere 14.3 percent of India's science researchers being women and the country ranking 87th on the World Economic Forum gender gap report, it's no surprise that health, education, socio-economic and political inequalities between Indian men and women are vast. One of the reasons that can be attributed to India being a laggard in gender equality is the perception of women as incapable of doing certain jobs.

Children play in the corridor of a government-run school in Bengaluru September 8, 2014. REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Files

Gender stereotypes dictate that women are fit for domestic or some creative work, while hard physical labour, or intellectual prowess is reserved for men. These ideas are constantly reinforced by the media and society, making it easy for children to emulate and follow them. Gender stereotypes are very powerful, they influence how women conceptualize themselves and what they believe they can and cannot do. A recent U.S.-based study on gender stereotypes found girls as young as six believe that brilliance is a male trait.

To assess attitudes, values, and perceptions of students and teachers towards gender, the Centre for Science of Student Learning (CSSL) conducted a study on more than 6,000 students across rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha. The study showed how children as young as nine are influenced by stereotypical notions about gender.

Researchers used contextual questions to understand what students think. In a question related to adhering to gender roles, nearly 40 percent of the students chose options that suggested men and women should follow gender stereotypical roles like feeding a child for women, and driving a tractor for men. A similar proportion of teachers supported gender stereotypical behaviour, but there were stronger attitudes towards male typecast behaviour.

The students who chose gender stereotypical roles for both sexes did not feel that women should engage in activities like playing football or riding a motorbike. They also considered women unfit to join the army. As for men, the belief was that they shouldn’t be feeding children, washing dishes, or learning to dance.

On an average, a similar number of boys and girls exclusively supported stereotypical behaviour. Among the teachers, it was mostly male teachers who exclusively supported the stereotypical view of gender behaviour.


The students and teachers were also presented with a question to gauge what they thought of engaging in non-stereotypical behaviour. They were asked if it was okay for a boy to draw, or should he only focus on studying. Only about 16 percent of the students exclusively chose the option that said men and women should be free to engage in whatever they liked. While about 30 percent said that boys should study instead of engaging in the arts.

Researchers noted that more boys than girls seem to believe that boys should study instead of making drawings. While, more girls than boys believed that boys should be free to do what they like.

School children use an umbrella while walking on a pavement as it drizzles in New Delhi August 8, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee/Files

Nearly 80 percent of the teachers in the study expressed their belief that boys should have the social freedom to do what they like. The belief that boys should just focus on studying was more prevalent amongst male teachers.


World Bank data indicates that India has one of the world’s highest demographics of children suffering from malnutrition. Added to this is the fact that in some households, there is still gender-based discrimination in terms of distributing food amongst girls and boys.

School children pack an auto-rickshaw on their way to school in Ahmedabad July 20, 2011. REUTERS/Amit Dave/Files

A study done by Oxford University’s Young Lives research collaborative in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana examined gender inequalities in the quality of children’s diet. The study found that 15-year-old girls are less likely to consume foods that contain most of the protein and micronutrients necessary for healthy development, such as eggs, legumes, root vegetables, fruit and meat.

A part of our study was aimed at understanding the attitudes towards distribution of food among boys and girls. The results showed that only about 31 percent of the students think that boys and girls deserve an equal share of the food at home.

More than half of all students believed that girls should not get an equal share of food. These students showed a strong disbelief in gender equality, and said they believed boys deserve more because they will be future breadwinners, while girls should eat less to stay slim and beautiful. They also believed in the subjugation of women by implying that women should learn to adjust and accept whatever food they are given.

However, most teachers (close to 90 percent) said that boys and girls deserve an equal share of food.

When responses on all these questions were analysed, we found that on an average, as little as 2.2 percent of the students believe in stereotype-breaking behaviour. They see men and women free to choose at least one role that is not gender conditioned, they exclusively believe that boys are free to behave as they like, including effeminately. They also think that food should be distributed equally between boys and girls at home.

The study shows students lack critical thinking skills that can enable them to dispel stereotypes or redundant notions. It shows they are not able to question prevailing societal norms and form progressive ideas. There is minimal to no research on what children are thinking about relevant social issues, or whether we are grooming an aware, and a progressive generation.

About the Author

Vyjayanthi Sankar is a leading education, assessment and management expert. A Fulbright Humphrey fellow and an Ashoka fellow, Vyjayanthi regularly consults for the Brookings Institution, The World Bank, UNICEF and the Learning Metrics Task Force. She is the Founder & Executive Director of the Centre for Science of Student Learning, a Delhi-based education research organisation.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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