Three Hidden Ways Education Contributes to Discrimination

by Debbie L. Kasman in

Ontario’s education system is a world-class education system. Canadian students perform well on PISA – the Program for International Student Assessment – and there have been positive results over the past fifteen years in increasing elementary literacy and numeracy, improving graduation rates, and reducing the number of low-performing schools. But there’s a dark side to the system we don't recognize. Ontario’s education system also unwittingly contributes to gender and race discrimination.

This is part two in a two part series. Part one is called Eight Powerful Reasons You Should Wear A Pink Hat (and take a stand against gender and race discrimination in other ways). To read it first, click here.

One of the ways education unwittingly contributes to discrimination is through the government’s funding model for education. Secondary teachers, vice-principals, and principals are paid more than their elementary counter-parts. This isn’t because the job in the secondary system is harder. It’s because the field of elementary education has historically been female-dominated and women historically were not perceived as "breadwinners." In April 2015, the government of Ontario appointed a Steering Committee to lead the development of a wage gap strategy designed to study the problem and potentially close the pay gap between men and women in education. In its Submission to the Steering Committee on Gender Wage Equality, the Ontario Principals’ Council writes:

Women historically were not perceived as ‘breadwinners.’ Rather, their incomes were perceived as incidental to those earned by men in households where women lived with fathers or husbands – their incomes were for ‘pin money’ only. Women working in elementary education at all levels (including school administration) thus had their work undervalued and underpaid, and the position itself was devalued as well by being so closely associated with women’s work.

Another way education contributes to discrimination is by not hiring senior leadership teams that are gender balanced and race proportional. There are currently 31 English Public school boards serving approximately 1.4 million students in Ontario. More than 10 of these boards have senior leadership teams comprised of more men than women. Another three English Public school boards have severely imbalanced leadership teams. Lambton Kent DSB has 6 men and only 2 women on its senior leadership team, Waterloo Region DSB has 9 men and only 3 women on its senior leadership team, and Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB has 7 men and only 2 women on its senior leadership team. This means nearly 42% of English Public school boards in the province of Ontario are teaching thousands of students that men are better leaders than women!

Senior leadership teams in the province of Ontario are not proportional to the cultures in their communities, either. In December 2012, Ranjit Khatkur accused the Peel DSB of systemic discrimination after she wasn’t promoted to become a high school principal. Peel settled the Human Rights Complaint. It was the eighth by the Peel board in the past decade dealing with race-based complaints by students or staff. The case attracted strong interest in Peel, where about 60% of residents are visible minorities. As a result of the complaint, Peel adopted a 15-page action plan to create checks and balances that will help ensure a fair and inclusive way to mentor, hire and promote staff, from janitors to principals, supply teachers to superintendents. They also starting keeping track of the demographic background of each employee through a voluntary “diversity census.”

Researchers at LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company say it’s important to track of demographics. They recommend companies and other organizations quantify the problem by tracking key metrics such as the number of women and men in the hiring process, their promotion rates for women and men, and women and men’s satisfaction with their roles. They also suggest setting gender targets and holding leaders responsible for actually meeting the targets. In addition, they recommend companies train their employees about what gender bias is and how to combat it. But very few school boards actually do this. In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada’s first gender-balanced federal cabinet and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a target for women to make up at least 40% of all appointments to provincial boards and agencies by 2019, but there are no targets for school boards. They are allowed to continue their current practices and school boards don’t see their current practices as discriminatory.

Education also inadvertently contributes to discrimination through the textbooks it uses. In Policy Paper Number 28 (the Global Education Monitoring Report issued in December 2016), the United Nations writes:

Textbooks can disseminate gender bias, prejudice and discrimination through stereotypical and unbalanced depictions of men and women in stories and illustrations. Gender biases in textbooks can shape gender identities in ways that impede progress towards gender equality in education and the empowerment of women for social and economic development. Gender bias in textbooks is one of the best camouflaged and hardest to budge rocks in the road to gender equality in education.

Google contributes to the problem, too. In a recent Guardian article, writer Carole Cadwalladr pointed out that Google’s search algorithms reflect virtually nothing but the popularity of the most responded to sites for the search enquiry. There are no checks to see whether any of the recommendations are actually true or not. Cadwalladr was particularly alarmed when she typed in “Are Jews...” and before she could finish, Google’s search engines provided her with the most likely responses, one of which was “Are Jews evil?” Curious, she hit that entry, and was taken to the authoritative Google page of the 10 most common and popular answers, 9 of 10 of which said, in effect, “Yes, definitely, Jews are evil.” Genuinely surprised—and alarmed—she writes:

Google is knowledge. It’s where you go to find things out. And evil Jews are just the start of it. There are also evil women. This is what I type: ‘are women’. And Google offers me just two choices, the first of which is ‘Are women evil?’ I press return. Yes, they are. Every one of the 10 results ‘confirms’ that they are, including the top one, from a site which is boxed out and highlighted: ‘Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her.... Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them.’

Genuinely concerned, Cadwalladr contacted Danny Sullivan, founding editor of

He has been recommended to me by several academics as one of the most knowledgeable experts on search. Am I just being naïve, I ask him? Should I have known this was out there? ‘No, you’re not being naïve,’ he says. ‘This is awful. Google is doing a horrible, horrible job of delivering answers here.’ He’s surprised, too. He types ‘are women’ into his own computer. ‘Good lord! That answer at the top. It’s a featured result. It’s called a ‘direct answer.’ This is supposed to be indisputable. It’s Google’s highest endorsement.’ That ‘every women has some degree of prostitute in her?’ ‘Yes. This is Google’s algorithm going terribly wrong.’

Girls are increasingly outperforming boys in the classroom and graduating at higher rates, but a study by researchers at the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University based on more than 10,000 students shows boys who receive marks in the 60 % range in high school will make more money on average, than girls who receive marks in the 90 % range. Another study published in The Globe and Mail shows that Canadian teenagers may talk the talk on gender equality but they harbour some markedly stereotypical views. Nearly 1000 young Canadians were surveyed as well as nearly 4,000 teens from India, Rwanda and the United Kingdom. The survey revealed 31% of Canadian boys think a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for the family. (In the U.K., 15% of young boys think the same.) In addition, 90% of Canadian youth say they agree gender equality is good for both men and women, but nearly 45% agree that “to be a man you need to be tough.” (By comparison, 13% of youth in the U.K and 26% in Rwanda hold similar views.)  In a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center, when Americans were asked what made someone "truly American," a third of respondents said you need to be Christian.

We have a great deal of work to do in North America in order to be truly inclusive. Ontario will struggle to be a world-class organization in the future if we undervalue and underutilize the contributions of women and minorities.

Canada and the global community look toward education as a means to increasing gender equality in the economic and political worlds.  The OECD tells us:  ‘Governments across the world have an important role to play in promoting gender equality, and not just by monitoring the gender dimension when crafting and evaluating policies, but also by ensuring equality of opportunity in the public service with the government acting as a role model for other employers.’ 

As educators, and as agents of the government, we have a moral and ethical obligation to work toward correcting this complex problem. For real change to occur, we must eliminate our own gender and race imbalances. Then directors, superintendents, principals and teachers can lead by example and model the way forward for the rest of society. This is critical because we cannot preach things we do not practice.

Gender and race inequities need to be addressed – starting at the top. The Ontario government needs to develop a wage gap strategy that will close the gap between men and women in education. They also need to set gender and race targets and hold school boards accountable for meeting those targets. Premier Kathleen Wynne will need to “tweak” or repeal Regulation 274, which requires principals to hire based on seniority.

Directors will need to hire gender balanced and race proportional senior leadership teams, track key metrics such as the number of women, men and minorities in their hiring processes, their promotion rates for women and minorities, as well as women, men’s and minorities satisfaction with their roles. Directors also need to ensure their employees are trained on what gender bias is and how to combat it.

Principals will need to hire gender balanced and race proportional staffs and teachers and teacher-librarians will need to continue to eliminate textbooks that disseminate gender bias, prejudice and discrimination through stereotypical and unbalanced depictions of men and women in stories and illustrations. They’ll also need to continue to closely monitor what students are reading on the internet and teach them to be critical consumers of information.  

In a world that appears to be increasingly zenophobic and misogynistic, this is the only way we will properly educate the over two million students who currently attend Ontario schools.

Debbie L. Kasman

Debbie is an international educational consultant and former teacher, principal, principal assistant to the superintendent for Special Education, acting interim superintendent for Curriculum and Special Education, and student achievement officer at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat at the Ministry of Education in Ontario. She has lots to say about spirituality, female leadership, and the need to transform education.