Reading Gender in Between the Lines

When I was a seven-year old in a girls’ school and my class teacher was teaching us about evolution, I noticed that she frequently used the word ‘man’. Was it only one man, I wondered, where did the rest of the people go? So, when she wrote the answers on the blackboard, I made it a point to convert every ‘man’ into ‘men’ in my notebook. It made more sense to me that way.

Haven’t we all come across grammar exercises in school which ask us to change the noun into singular or plural form and also it’s gender? I am going to deal with the gender part of it in this piece. So, let us just stick to the syllabus for now. For that, there is only one thing to be kept in mind and I bet you have been told many times throughout your school-life to do so – reading in between the lines.

In Class 10, we had to learn about the Union Parliament, the President, the Prime Minister and so on. Under the subheadings, “Qualifications to become a member of the Lok Sabha” or “Qualifications to become a member of the Rajya Sabha”, there were five or six points each. These irked me immensely. All of them went on like “He must be…” or “He must have…”. Ironically, right above these lines, there was a photograph of the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Ms Sumitra Mahajan.

In my opinion, just mentioning “He/She” instead of just “He” would have made such a huge and positive difference. As a matter of fact, there are currently 78 women in the Lok Sabha and 25 women in the Rajya Sabha. Supposing that there is just one lady in the entire parliament or even if there are only men, there is no reason to justify that putting only “he” is quite alright. The omission of the word “she” showcases the lack of basic inclusiveness in our society, be it in actual sense or simply in communication. Substituting these words with ‘One must…’ or ‘The person must…’ would also have been in toto satisfying.

Coming to Home Science which I took up in Class 10, it is really sad to say that many people already have stereotypes about this subject and the book was no good in rubbishing those. Without even reading very closely, one could observe the words “housewife” or “the lady of the house” being used multiple times. “She” was supposed to prepare nutritious meals for the family, wash clothes the right way, plan the monthly budget, choose how to shop and finally direct the interior designing of the house. My mother is a working woman and so was my grandmother. Inspite of the fact that they did most of the household chores, they have seen a lot more than the insides of the four walls of the house and the way my book painted them seemed questionable to me.

It was also mentioned in one place that Mathematics and Science are more ‘sex-appropriate’ for boys. Being a PCMB student, this was outrageous to me. First, women from some sections of the society are denied education and those fortunate enough to study are discouraged from pursuing the subjects they like, and that too by educated people!

What I gather from this experience is that a subject which was supposed to ensure positive family dynamics and re-assess gender roles did much the opposite. The only respite from this misguided utopia is that many of the boys in my class who had taken up Physical Education, later wanted to join Home Science while the girls from my batch found what the boys had taken up more interesting.

Imagine what it would be for a boy to read such a book. I guess he would feel very much like I felt when I was studying Civics.

Next, for the time being, let us overlook these errors in my History & Civics and Home Science textbooks. Yes, they can be considered as errors that can be corrected so that they do not become mistakes, as rightly said by John F. Kennedy. But there are quite a lot of things that must not be overlooked.

The unit on Genetics & Evolution in my Class 12 Biology textbook has elaborate notes on scientists and their contributions. We even have that as a compulsory question for two marks in the board examination. Since Biology is a subject in which I don’t like to lose any marks, I made a list of all the scientists and their contributions to help me keep them in my mind. Out of 90-odd people, only 4 are women.

Does that explain how backward women are in Science as compared to men? No, absolutely not. It shows how selective and biased the scientific community has been in recognising women and their work. I will take the trouble to enlighten you with the four names – Esther Lederberg, Rosalind Franklin, Martha Chase and Barbara McClintok.

Esther Lederberg discovered the lamda bacteriophage and played a pivotal role in bacterial genetics but she is better known as Nobel Prize-winning Joshua Lederberg’s wife.

Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins worked on X-ray diffraction patterns of DNA while James Watson and Francis Crick proposed a model of DNA. Franklin was sceptical about it. Later they proposed the double-helix structure of DNA using crucial inputs from her research. Wilkins, Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in 1962 after Franklin died of ovarian cancer.

Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey drove the last nail into the coffin of the protein versus DNA genetic material controversy by establishing through a bacterium-bacteriophage system that it is DNA and not protein that carries hereditary information. Only Hershey won the Nobel Prize in 1969.

There have been quite a few researches on the lives of these women and how the scientific community had treated them. They have remained mostly inconspicuous while their male counterparts were easily awarded the Nobel Prize.

Barbara McClintok also faced much difficulties as a scientist but she was eventually recognised and awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 for discovering a phenomenon called genetic transposition or mobile genetic elements.

Somehow, these women made it into my book. But let me come to a person who should have been mentioned for her work but has been refused recognition almost all her life – Nettie Stevens. She worked with Thomas Hunt Morgan, who later came to be known as the Father of Experimental Genetics. Practically, Morgan is the most important scientist given in the book after Gregor John Mendel, the Father of Genetics. Stevens was the one who linked sex determination in organisms to the configuration of their chromosomes. Morgan received the Nobel Prize in 1933 for working on the fly Drosophila melanogaster while Stevens died of breast cancer. Morgan did not mention her in the et al list.

But Morgan is said to have omitted quite a few names from the list and Nettie Stevens’ was just one of them. I pondered over how a person as influential and intellectual as Morgan could do a thing as petty and tarnishing as this. How could he not give proper credit to his colleagues?

Well, Barbara McClintok gave me the answer: “If you know you’re right, you don’t care. You know that sooner or later, it will come out in the wash.” She proved it to be true. This does not always need to apply only to women. There are talented people all over the world and they all deserve to be recognised and not snubbed.

In no way do I want to demean the work of the men scientists or patronise the women instead. The very fact that I came to know about the difficulties faced by women in this field is because some or the other person, be it a man or a woman, has spoken about it and condemned it openly. Being equals is far better than being superior or inferior. I think we have come a long way in that if we consider that Nettie Stevens was addressed with the prefix Ms while nowadays, women in Science are given equal importance as men.

To catalyse the transition further and take it beyond this field, there is an obvious need to sculpt an education system that is free of gender discrimination and stereotypic societal views. It should be one which does not question or comment if a boy takes up Humanities or a girl opts for Engineering. It must be encouraging and modelled in such a manner that it brings out the best in a person, not the ‘appropriate’ or ‘correct’ behaviour and roles expected by others.

While the usage of diverse pronouns should be promoted, nouns like poetess, actress, hostess and mistress could be dropped, because not only do they sound patronising, but they also pave the way for stereotypes and invite prejudice. After all, everybody is a person carrying out their profession and it makes no difference whether it is a man or a woman doing the job.

All of this can be achieved only when the teachers also start discussing and questioning the word in print. I observed only recently that I did not write ‘humans’ in my notebook instead of ‘man’ in the beginning while studying about evolution as a kid. That would have made much more sense actually. But that thought probably did not strike me because my teacher didn’t point it out either. ‘Human’ sounds way better than ‘man’!

An environment where the teacher has more say than both the book and the syllabus for good would be conducive for students, especially very little children, to mould their views in the morally right way to build an inclusive society that works exclusively on the basis of calibre and talent and not gender. Even better would it be if the syllabus becomes gender-neutral.

Lastly, just as a reminder, I want to put in that all of this, which also culminates into a Sustainable Development Goal, that is, SDG#5 Gender Equality, can be accomplished only when all humans evolve and learn to be fair, just, tolerant and compassionate.

-Yazhini Sathiamoorthy (Participant in the Rewards Program, 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi)

Picture: Representational Only (Credits –


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