The Challenge of Gender-Bias Reform: A Case Study of Teacher Trainees in Hong Kong
Following the work of Sadker and Sadker (1982, 1986), gender-bias in the classroom has been well documented and attempts at gender-bias reform have proliferated. From these efforts, a considerable debate has grown around the issue of what establishes and what maintains such inequality. One side of this debate holds that gender attitudes may be isolated and gender-bias corrected through, for example, promoting school-based action (Corson, 1993). For others, gender attitudes are more complex, and school-based action is superficial when it fails to explore how individuals respond to enforced attitude change (Swann, 1995).
Within the EFL classroom, Toohey and Scholefield (1994) note that "[i]t may be that students have some sense that sorting out misogyny...does not appear connected with their major concern: learning enough English to get the kind of education they want" (p. 10). However, the tentative phrases may be, some sense, and does not appear voice a reserve which frequently greets attempts to resolve gender-bias in the EFL classroom. Such reserve is questionable given the gender ratio of teachers of English in Hong Kong's secondary and primary schools, which is 8 females to 1 male. However, gender identity is a complex matter. For Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, gender identity is a "continual construction" formed by both males and females from their perceptions of a surrounding "community of practice" (1992). It is this view of gender as a dynamic, gender as a response to an array of stimuli, which is explored here within the context of Hong Kong.
The case study which follows demonstrates the resilience of gender-bias in the face of condemning evidence. In so doing, individual gender perception is shown to be a continual construction which favors, when faced with gender-bias, the strategy of compliance. The subjects are pre-service teacher trainees in Hong Kong. Three questions are investigated: First, what is the community of practice of these Hong Kong pre-service teacher trainees? Second, are these trainees aware of gender-bias in their education? Third, are individual trainees willing to act against gender-bias?
In addition to completing a demographic survey, the 1995 trainee group was interviewed. Standardization was achieved by one lecturer completing all the interviews over one semester. The three areas explored were the trainees' self-esteem, school experience, and attitudes to education. First, the trainees' self-esteem was uniformly low. Enrollment as a teacher-trainee was stated to be a "final option" chosen largely because "poor exam grades" precluded admission to a "proper course." Less than 15% of the trainees had chosen teaching as their career. Second, their school experience was uniformly co-educational: less than 17% had experience of single-sex education and even less (8%) considered single-sex education as a desirable option. Finally, the trainees' attitudes to education were again largely uniform. All assumed that because it was their most common school experience, co-education was somehow "the best."
Accordingly, the community of practice of the trainees can be described as follows: It is backgrounded by families whose household incomes will markedly increase once the trainees become government teachers. In its foreground are inadequate home-study facilities favoring a group-study pattern, a learning community in which males form a minority, low self-esteem in terms of examination results, a (teaching) career viewed as being a "final option," and dominant educational assumptions grounded in co-education.
It has been argued that in "qualitative research -- the participant's perspective...should unfold as the participant views it" (Marshall & Rossman, 1995, p. 80) and that in quantitative research "the flesh and bones of the everyday lifeworld is removed" (Feagin, Orum, & Sjoberg, 1995, p. 61). The methodology employed here will now follow a cycle between qualitative, quantitative, and back to qualitative research modes to explore how the background and foreground described previously impacts the average teacher trainee.
During the study, the trainees observed lectures in rotation to minimize interrupting their normal classroom participation. The observed classes uniformly ran for two hours, and lecture subjects included the Arts, Sciences, and Languages. Lecturers were aware of this observation exercise but unaware of which particular class(es) were being observed. A summary of these 1994 and 1995 classroom interactions is shown in Table 1.
|Total number of lectures observed||24||51|
More female interactions
More male interactions
Table 1 confirms that a trend observed in Western societies is also to be found within an urban Asian context (see Grossman, 1994; Sunderland, 1992, 1994). Culturally, Hong Kong's citizens are immersed in a patri-linear society, and it is tempting to ascribe the above results simply to that cause. Previous case studies certainly subscribe to this conclusion (see Pong & Post, 1991; Westwood, Mehrain, & Cheung, 1995).
A more detailed analysis of the classroom interactions in 1995 according to gender is displayed in Table 2. The male lecturers were observed having more interactions (79%) with male trainees compared with only 14% with female trainees. This would suggest a gender-support theory in which male lecturers favor their own gender. However, a comparison of the male and female lecturer interactions with their trainees does not support the theory. The detailed analysis shows that female lecturers interact even more than their male colleagues with male trainees. These observations question the validity of ascribing gender-based behavior to the Chinese patri-linear society.
More interactions with
There is a high consistency in female lecturers' classroom interactions being gender-biased against their own gender. This was shown in a closer analysis of two classes taught by female lecturers. In the first class of 36 teacher trainees which had a ratio of 1 male to 3.3 females, the lecturers' interactions with the female trainees was 44% of that given to male trainees. In the second class of 23 teacher trainees with a ratio of 1 male to 10 females, the lecturers' interactions with the female trainees was only 30% of that with the males. Irrespective of class size or trainee behavior, the evidence is of female lecturers' giving even less attention to female trainees than their male colleagues.
Before informing them of the classroom observation results, a survey was conducted among the lecturers who had been observed by the 1994 trainee group. The lecturers were asked to record their views on gender matters in their classroom. Unanimously, they expressed the opinion that they "teach trainees, not gender." Lecturers (of both gender) viewed themselves as being "fair, balanced, and caring" about all their trainees. Lecturer gender-perceptions and their classroom behavior are clearly at a variance.
Having moved with the trainee group from qualitative to the quantitative delineation of gendered classroom interactions, now came the moment to return the findings to this trainee group and through qualitative means, to observe their response.
When the results of the re-grouping exercise were discussed, it became clear that gender equity, though recognized as a noble pursuit, held a lower priority than the impulse for peer and social acceptance. Peer acceptance was expressed as "I want to stay with my friends" and "mixed groups are more healthy." Behind peer acceptance was the drive for social acceptance, particularly the acceptance of the behavior of their lecturers as expressed in "it would be like complaining." It was made clear to the author that no trainee wished to challenge the background to their community of practice, nor wished to be seen as questioning the gatekeepers to a position as a certificated Hong Kong school teacher.
Such a conclusion may seem pessimistic, even defeatist, for those striving for gender equity. This need not be the only construction, for the case study equally demonstrates gender in both the EFL and other subject classrooms to be dynamic, not passive. These trainees exercised choice. Their choice was to construct a group identity, to secure a place for themselves within their new social context of trainee life. By recognizing that gender-bias is dynamic and not passive, an alternative conclusion is that gender-bias reform falters when recipients perceive it as an emotional rather than a practical concern.
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Swann, J. (1995). What do we do about gender? Language and Education, 6, 249-258.
Toohey, K., & Scholefield, A. (1994). "Her mouth windfull of speech": Gender in the English as second language classroom. TESL Canada Journal, 12, 3-12.
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Victor Forrester has been involved in teacher training in Hong Kong for eight years. He has also lectured extensively in Oman, the UK, and Kuwait. His research interests also include curriculum and pedagogical review, the introduction of quality assurance, and the workload of English language teachers in Hong Kong schools.