Feature: Sense & Sensitivity

Adapted by Azahar bin Ahmad Nizar (azahar_ahmad@oum.edu.my)

In these modern times, women are often put in the unenviable position of having to simultaneously shoulder a professional and domestic burden. Should she decide to also pursue her studies at tertiary level, that burden is easily tripled. It is for this reason that open and distance learning (ODL) is ideal for the working woman as she is able to study from home. Given that more and more women are interested in improving themselves academically, ODL institutions must also demonstrate gender sensitivity, be it in learning materials, face-to-face interactions or online forums. Beware of the following errors when interacting with your learners:

  1. Masculine Pronouns
    Traditional educational practice tends to assume that the world revolves around men. This is refl ected in the custom of using the masculine pronoun (he, him, his) to refer to both genders in English. Female learners tend to feel excluded when they are addressed in terms that linguistically privilege men over women. Nor does it help to use combinations (he or she, he/she, s/he) because they tend to look or sound inelegant.

    The obvious way of circumventing this problem is to apply gender-neutral pronouns. For example, instead of:

    This e-module has been developed especially with the learner in mind so that he can process learning better.

    the sentence should be rephrased as follows:

    This e-module has been developed especially with the learner in mind so that you can process learning better.

  2. Gender-biased Vocabulary
    Language indirectly refl ects certain assumptions and expectations about gender roles. This is so deeply entrenched in the way we speak and think that we hardly give it a thought when gender-biased vocabulary is used.

    Things are positively changing for the better, though. Once upon a time, nobody would bat an eyelid if you were to address a woman who chairs a meeting as “the chairman”. It is assumed that the term applies to both men and women. Using “chairwoman” sounds slightly better, except that it gives the impression that this is a derivative version of the original term. Preferably, use genderneutral terms like “chairperson” (or simply “chair”).

  3. Gender Stereotypes
    Certain gender stereotypes have become so much a part of our psyche that we unconsciously imagine a certain gender in relation to certain professions or roles. For example, when the term “nurse” is used in a clinical context, most of us would assume that the nurse in question is female. This is certainly not true in all cases as more and more men are beginning to seriously pursue nursing as a career.

    ODL learning materials should refl ect these changing realities. For example, illustrations of nurses should portray both genders at work. Images have the power to leave indelible impressions in the human mind; therefore, it is crucial to sensitise learners to gender-neutral visuals.

Adapted from: Producing gender-sensitive materials for open and distance learning. Commonwealth of learning. Retrieved June 28, 2010, from

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As a tutor, I believe that I can help learners to create learning spaces by:

Encouraging them to think independently by giving them short essay tests
Encouraging them to work as a group
Adding variety to the assignments and encouraging them to think from a different perspective
Ensuring that the tutorial room is always conducive for the learners
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