A Gender Studies Course

Chris Heaume, Ryukoku University


  • Key Words: Gender Issues
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate through advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: High school through adult
  • Preparation Time: Varies
  • Activity Time: One semester

"I learnt about what makes women superb." (female student)

"I learnt that men are sometimes trapped too." (male student)

In contrast to the usual challenges of sustaining motivation and involvement in conversation-based university courses, this one-semester content-based elective course provided a model of teacher/student participation. Seventy-five students enrolled. Fifty-six achieved attendance of over 90%; only 3 students stated that they found the course less than "interesting" or "very interesting." Perhaps content-relevance can make a difference.

Cultural Issues

Having taught similar courses for many years in the UK, I was concerned about the major cultural differences that would come into play in Japan--the structural position of the mother in the family, the relative low empowerment of women, the control of the company over men's lives, the passivity of Japanese male expression, and the relative low assertion of female and male sexualities. In addition I was concerned about the challenges of the Japanese educational process--the unwillingness to discuss and challenge, to self-examine, to explore, and to confront culturally sensitive issues--on a course that would principally focus on personal examination. Inevitably, these concerns were real and manifest in the classroom, but were alleviated by an openness to the subject area, an interest in the changing situation for women and men in Japan, and a personal drive towards change from many of the students. It became a course that generated its own energy.

The syllabus, delivered entirely in English, began with definitions of gender, sex, stereotypes, prejudice, and sexism. In particular, we differentiated between male and masculine, and female and feminine. The differences between biological and social states were easy for the students to perceive and formed the core concept of the course, the former being difficult to change, the latter being open to social and personal interpretation.

Through students' own experiences, we continued to explore in pairs and as a whole class the characteristics of masculine and feminine stereotypes and their application at home, school, work, and in personal relationships, focusing particularly on how sexism operates in Japanese society. Factual information copied from Japanese, British, and American newspaper articles illustrated the status quo and social trends in employment, education, media images, violence, divorce, and health. Through the examination of these sources combined with personal perceptions, students explored the lack of opportunity for women at work and the impact of company pressure on men's health. Students drew their own conclusions on the potential link between the rising women-led divorce rates and the absence of the father from family life. They similarly explored the notion of the glass ceiling of promotional opportunity for women in Japanese companies alongside their own experiences, and were astounded with international comparisons. A further session set out the paths of progress on gender issues, from identification of a problem, through the stages of doubt, guilt, fear and learning, to ultimate challenge and change.

The Expression of Sexualities

The whole-class based discussion on "Japanese women as sex objects" was the most powerful--possibly because the issues of pornography, harassment on trains, domestic violence, hostess bars, and other current phenomena are seldom aired, let alone in the classroom by a foreign teacher. While the female students were on the edge of their seats, bright-eyed, the struggle for me was to raise the bowed heads of the male students whose reaction appeared to be of shame rather than anything more positive or challenging.

Similarly unconventional as a classroom topic (although less controversial) was the content of the unit on sexuality. Students were interested to explore each other's (and my) differing notions of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and related issues, again illustrating the ineffectuality of stereotypes and their limits of personal expression and growth. It is difficult to explore societal notions of "maleness and femaleness" without exploring a continuum of sexual attraction and expression. In their evaluations, it was this area that many most wanted to repeat or extend.

Case Studies

Students became most engaged when we applied case studies to the ideas represented in the course. One study referred to a company management team that enjoyed the annual mountain retreat beer-enriched junket of "team development and bonding." When they were joined by a new female manager, how should they plan their trip--should they go without her, should they all bring their wives, or . . .?

Another study looked at the dilemma for a male intemational sales junior executive when his annual company conference in Bangkok coincided with the projected date for the birth of his and his wife's first child. Should he forsake chances of promotion to be at the birth? One solution (clearly unworkable when we examined it!) was that he should take his wife to the conference.

These and other case studies enabled students to confront the issues as they really were, to look at dilemmas that arise in their lives, and to consider priorities. For male students especially, one key issue arose--can I really be committed to closer relationships with my family in a culture where so much of the male identity is connected to work?

Parenting Project

Finally, students completed a project on their future role as parents--what type of parent would they be to their daughters and to their sons? What expectations would they have of either, what boundaries would they create, how would the mother and father operate at home, what time would they spend together, what examples would they set in challenging gender stereotypes, how would they balance the pressures of home and work, as men and as women? While the majority took touching care to think these issues through, some boldly challenged the culturally high expectation of parenting, asking the question "what about those of us who don't want to marry?"

Sources and Materials

The student textbook (Men and Women-Partners at Work, by Simons and Weissman) proved too heavy on text and too reliant on sophisticated communicative processes, although did offer some exercises, illustrations, and focuses. Newspaper articles and other research enabled fact sheets and board presentations appeared accessible, as did home-produced work sheets on many areas of the syllabus. Essentially the concepts were simple, and the illustrations enabled the students to apply them to their own situations.

Student Evaluations

Student evaluations were revealing. Some comments from female students:

"I thought that gender was similar to sex but now I understand the difference."

"I don't have to live as a stereotypical woman."

"I have to think about my future more carefully."

". . . harmony and balance is very important to working women."

Some comments from males:

" . . . there are positive ways we can make partnerships between men and women."

"I learnt what other people are thinking."

"I didn't know about prejudice before . . ."

" . . . there is a lot of sexual harassment."

"I have many unconscious stereotypes."

"I sometime think that my girlfriend has to make dinner."

"[I] regarded women as weak."

"We should try to change our minds."

"[I] learned that women in companies are not treated as well as men."

" . . . women's faculties must be more fairly examined."

Eighty percent of the students in the course were male. Perhaps it is appropriate, therefore, for a male teacher to be setting up challenges to masculine traditions and interpretations and giving credibility to "women's" political issues. It was also important to help male students look at the limits to their own lives that gender stereotyping can bring, raising an awareness and shifting the focus from guilt to one of personal change. And, whether taught by a man or a woman, it appeared that the issue of gender is one that hit the mark in terms of relevance, engaging students in areas