2/15/24 · Culture

"Students appreciate training in gender equality, but they don't think they need it"

Cristina Miralles, a researcher awarded a prize by the UOC for her research on gender inequalities in science and technology
Cristina Miralles

Photo: Cristina Miralles (provided by: Cristina Miralles)

According to the latest survey by Spain's Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) on perceptions of equality between men and women in Spain, 44.1% of men believe that women's equality has been promoted to such an extent that men are being discriminated against. Nevertheless, almost half of those surveyed reported having heard sexist comments in the previous twelve months. And the data show that women continue to spend significantly more hours every day on housework and childcare.

Opinions like those highlighted by the CIS are highly subject to people's knowledge of concepts such as the gender perspective. Gender equality has begun to be included in programmes of study in order to provide education in this field. But to what extent do teachers have the right competencies for including gender equality in training? And what do students think of this training?

Cristina Miralles Cardona, a doctoral degree holder in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies from the University of Alacant, seeks the answers to these questions in her thesis Estudio exploratorio de las percepciones, competencias y actitudes de docentes en formación hacia la igualdad de género [An exploratory study of teachers' perceptions, competencies and attitudes in training for gender equality]. Her work has earned her the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) 2023 Cecilia Castaño prize for research on gender inequalities in science and technology, which is coordinated by the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) Gender and ICT research group (GenTIC).

Your research focuses on including the gender perspective in teaching in order to achieve equality. What sparked your interest in this field?

Women have historically been treated differently in society. They have been subject to sometimes negative stereotypes, and they have also been instilled with different ideas and expectations than those that apply to men. As a woman, I wanted to contribute to changing this situation and to progressing towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: achieve gender equality through the implementation of the gender mainstreaming perspective in all areas and contexts.

I studied and worked in the state of Minnesota in the United States for eighteen years. People there talk a lot about equality, equity and diversity, and those are principles that Americans carry in their DNA and hold dear to their hearts. However, gender issues have not been as pervasive as they are here. I find it interesting that including the gender perspective in teacher training has not been the focus of attention there in the same way as it has here in Europe, and in Spain in particular.

How important is it that students incorporate competencies related to gender, among both younger students and in those taking university degrees?

Making them aware and conscious of the inequalities and the various types of violence that exist is essential. Developing appropriate socio-emotional and gender competencies is crucial for their empowerment, and for enabling them to confront and dismantle the barriers created by gender stereotypes, norms and social roles.

We have to train young people so that they are aware and critical of stereotypes and inequalities. Educating them means giving them the skills to create a more just and equitable world. As the Forbes Technology Council member Tendü Yoğurtçu says, "we can't achieve gender equality without representing it within the education system and recognizing gaps in equal education opportunities for all genders or underrepresented groups".

And what do students think of gender equality training?

Surprisingly, many students have a mistaken and distorted view of equality, and this affects their opinion about the importance of the training. Although they generally appreciate it, they don't think they need it, because they've internalized the belief that there is equality between women and men. They have an unrealistic perception of inequalities and their consequences. This idea, which must be countered by education, once again highlights the need to raise awareness before working on competencies.

Are there any important differences in the responses according to the students' age or gender?

The female students were more demanding and critical than their male peers when it came to assessing the centre's commitment to the implementation of the equality policy. The same was true of the need to include a gender perspective in their training. They believe that this approach should be mandatory and broad-based, and they see it as essential in the fight against sexism.

Age was not a critical variable in the research. However, the programme the participants were doing was a critical variable: the students' belief that including gender in their training increased at lower levels of education. At the same time, awareness of gender inequalities was significantly lower among primary and secondary school students than among pre-primary students.

What do teachers think of gender equality training?

Teachers' opinions are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, they recognize that they need training in order to incorporate the gender perspective into teaching, but on the other, there is some indifference and even resistance to anything that sounds like a gender perspective. That's not new. The specialized literature on gender mainstreaming acknowledges that some contradictions need to be resolved in order to implement gender mainstreaming in educational institutions.

The teachers who participated in the study felt that teachers are not sufficiently aware of gender issues, that the school does not have a clear action plan that is coordinated properly with the institutional equality plan, and they also think they have not been given enough training to incorporate a gender approach into their teaching. This suggests that there is a need to improve institutional commitment and teachers' competencies.

Did you find any significant differences according to the teachers' gender or the educational level at which they teach?

The study worked with a small number of teachers; its composition was gender-balanced, with more teachers who taught on master's degree courses than on bachelor's degree courses, not all of them had teaching experience related to gender issues, and their participation was voluntary. That has to be taken into account if we are not to misinterpret the results, or draw the wrong conclusions.

There were no major differences of opinion among them; in general, they agreed. The interviewees believe that the strategy has had very little impact on teaching, as evidenced by the fact that the programmes of study contain no compulsory course on gender education. They also believe there should be an action plan at the centre, with clear guidelines, and working groups within departments to share knowledge and support each other.

Did any of the conclusions come as a particular surprise to you, or not meet your expectations?

What surprised me most was that both students and teachers agreed on the prerequisites necessary to make progress in this field: gender training, the need to coordinate it within the university, the creation of reflective and collaborative processes to address indifference and resistance, and the provision of guidelines for implementing action plans at all levels.

We are currently making very limited progress due to a lack of models that define the path to follow. Institutional equality plans must be implemented at each centre and faculty through their own specific action plans, and guidelines must be established so that training is not left to the discretion of the teaching staff or the interest of the students.

After conducting the study, do you think the training in gender competencies is adequate?

That's a difficult question to answer. The current training at the level of bachelor's and master's degrees consists of following a course, generally elective, which is part of a programme of study. Although it's better than nothing, it's not enough. In my opinion, the range needs to be more diverse, perhaps by combining a mandatory minimum component with other optional alternatives.

Rather than adequate, I believe that it doesn't exist in formal terms, apart from some exceptions, which must exist. Although the doctoral thesis showed that at the end of their studies students believe they have the necessary gender competencies to engage in gender-aware teaching, these data are misleading, and I believe they should be interpreted with considerable caution.

 How important is this thesis as a tool for designing and developing a good practice guide for incorporating the gender perspective in teacher training? Do you know if any institution is going to use it?

This thesis contributes to highlighting the precarious state of gender training in teacher training and master's degrees for secondary education teacher training, albeit based on data obtained from just one single institution, and sets precedents which can be used to define a new direction.

A group of professors to which I belong at the University of Alacant have made a commitment to write a guide for good training practices based on empirical evidence in order to help resolve the dilemma of gender mainstreaming in training.

What does your thesis receiving an award from the UOC mean to you?

It is an honour, and validation for the idea that effort and perseverance are rewarded sooner or later. I was preparing my thesis defence in the middle of the pandemic. Like many other people, I was working forty hours a week, a long way from my parents, taking care of two children aged five and eight, cooking meals and dealing with household chores. For me, this award symbolizes the result of that effort, and is recognition for the people who supported me throughout that long and difficult process. 

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