ACER’s Guide to Gender Correctness

ACER, which began life ninety years ago in Camberwell as a tiny educational research institute, is now a worldwide, um, thing. Courtesy of ACER’s UK branch, we have a very informative guide, titled,

The assessment community has promoted gender stereotyping for decades. How can we stop?

The guide, written by a single ACER “Research Fellow”, is labelled as a comment piece. As such, the guide presumably does not rise to the level of ACER policy. Nonetheless, it’s there on ACER’s website and it seems fair for ACER to take the credit.

The guide begins,

Typical assessments often use questions that associate characteristics with gender, especially when data are used in tables. From male and female baby weight tables to comparisons of science grades between girls and boys, questions and items using gender often feature in exams and promote gender stereotyping.

And, already, sheesh.

Sure, it may be “often” that such “typical” assessments “promote gender stereotyping”. Or, these assessments may reflect gender norms. That’s the thing about norms: they’re often about what’s normal.

Less contentiously, or at least less contentiously in a remotely sane world, these assessments might simply be based upon the biological reality of sex-based differences. What, for instance, can possibly be the gender component of or objection to male and female baby weight tables?

Anyway, what is one to do about all this horrible stereotyping? Well,

Ensure that any questions relating to gender are affirming and include all learners.

Always with the “affirming”. Because of course kids are never screwed up in their thinking or their sense of self, and of course all this affirmation couldn’t possibly screw up kids further. And really, any question has to “include all learners”? To the extent this commandment is coherent it seems a mighty tough ask.

And, as an overarching goal, promote equitable gender representation and avoid stereotyping in all questions.

The overarching goal of writing a question is that the question tests well what is to be tested. A concern with “equitable gender representation”, whatever that might mean, is properly a third order issue.

Depending on the subject, decide whether the ideal would be to remove gender.

By which the author is mostly suggesting that the “ideal” is to remove any mention of sex, which otherwise would have the concomitant danger of reminding the readers that sex is real and solid and binary.

The author then offers five helpful tips “to bring gender inclusivity to your assessments”.

1. Avoid using male and female as nouns

Does anybody do this? The terms “male” and “female” as nouns seem stilted and formal. But, of course, the terms are also insulting in new and improved ways:

Using male and female as nouns could appear to be endorsing cissexist views.

Readers may click on the link and enjoy the rabbit hole, but we won’t wait. Continuing here,

2. Introduce characters of ambiguous gender

It’s easy to choose names with ambiguous gender, for example, names like Jo, Alex, Kay, Andie, and Charlie.

How often should we be doing this? More often than exists in reality? Why?

Phrase questions in a way that does not require pronouns.

No. The one and only rule is to phrase questions so that the questions can most easily be understood. If that necessitates pronouns, so be it.

But anyway, even a question about Jo and Alex and Kay, and including no pronouns, is apparently insufficient:

This is neither non-binary nor gender-non-conforming as the characters do not explicitly present in these ways. However, it is a starting point in demonstrating that the gender of a character is not always relevant or easy to identify, and allows some non-binary learners to see themselves reflected in an assessment. 

Which is really the message. No matter how much one does to placate the gender cops, they will not be placated.

3. Remove gender binary from questions

By which the author means remove sex binary from questions.

For example, change the table comparing men and women wearing hats to comparing adults and children. 

This may or may not be natural in a given question. But, to consider it an imperative to remove sex binary is not natural. It is a distortion of reality.

Gender binary can also be avoided by not presenting one gender as the exact opposite of the other. For example, the question ‘Out of 200 people, two-fifths are men. How many women are there?’ could be changed to ‘Out of 200 people, two-fifths are men. How many people are not men?’

Congratulations all you women out there. After a good century of fighting to be other than “not men”, you’re not men again.

4. Normalise the use of characteristics other than gender

As for Tip 3, the real purpose is not to normalise characteristics other than gender but to abnormalise sex.

5. Last resort: reverse the stereotype

For questions in your item bank that are very stereotypical but you need to retain them, think about whether you can reverse the stereotypes. You need to be careful about how you implement this so that it doesn’t seem contrived.

Indeed, and a great note on which to end. We wouldn’t want any of this to come across as contrived.

43 Replies to “ACER’s Guide to Gender Correctness”

  1. No link to “An Exercise and Two Problems” …?
    (By the way, I liked how you snuck the word ‘Two”, a subtle nod to binary, into that title).

    Surely the “Research Fellow” should be calling themselves ‘Research Entity’ if they’re to be faithful to their comment piece.
    (I’d have suggested ‘Research Person’ except ‘Person’ contains the word ‘son’ which is not gender neutral. Perhaps ‘Research Perrecurring’, ‘Research Persibling’ or just take a leaf from another culture war and say ‘Research Persun’).
    Although on reflection, I think ‘Research Fallow’ sums it up nicely.

    And I believe it’s ‘womyn’, although that might be intruding upon a different culture war.

    And how long before ‘carbon-based biped’ is frowned upon (discriminatory towards AI)?

    Yep, this comment was meant to be (mostly) silly.

    1. Good point about the previous post (although ACER wasn’t the organisation I had in mind when writing that post). I’ll try to shoehorn in a link.

      I’d prefer you were less “silly”. Culture war snark is unhelpful and distracting.

  2. This stuff drives me nutty. If I was ever told any of this by administration I would quit and pull all of my children out to homeschool them. It won’t be soon enough when this nonsense stops.

    1. It drives everyone nutty. They are not convincing anyone of anything except that: (a) the perpetrators are obsessed; (b) the perpetrators are dangerous.

    1. They are both nouns and adjectives, obviously. But the use of the terms as nouns for humans (as opposed to animals) feels to me to be a non-issue. However, if their use can be viewed as cissexist, it might be time to bring them in.

  3. One often encounters reports on examination results that go like this. “Girls did better than boys in the English examination. Boys did better than girls in the maths exam.” I call this picking low-hanging fruit. Start with a spread sheet of data, pick out the results of the boys and results of the girls, and compare. Cut, paste, and click. No effort is made to understand what is going on in the learning of the students.

    What are the students supposed to do with statements like this?

    Why don’t we compare the results of left-handed students with those of others?

    Why don’t we compare results of students by race? (In Singapore, media reports often compare Chinese, Malay, and Indian data on all sorts of social questions.)

    I look forward to the day when we no longer record the sex of students in schools.

    1. Re: “I look forward to the day when we no longer record the sex of students in schools.”

      Holy cow, TM! How will we ever know that we’ve got to get more girls interested in and enrolled in STEM subjects? A whole cottage industry will collapse!

      Re: “Why don’t we compare results of students by race?”

      Holy moly, TM! Do you want riots in the streets of Australia!?

      Re: “Why don’t we compare the results of left-handed students with those of others?”

      Finally a sensible question, TM! We should! We must! Then we can see how unfair turning the pages of the exam booklets is for right handed students. But maybe we’ll see how unfair a written exam is for left handed students. But we must make sure the category “ambidextrous” is included.
      I’m sure there’s a PhD thesis here that will let someone clueless put Dr in front of their name.

      Re: “… pick out the results of the boys and results of the girls, and compare … What are the students supposed to do with statements like this?”

      And we’re back to holy guacamole, TM!
      The answer is: Nothing. (Because the statements aren’t meant for the students).

      1. Dear BiB; Thank you for your comments.

        Let me make it clear that I was not suggesting that we make the comparisons that I mentioned. I was saying only that simplistic statements such as “Girls did better than boys on a test” tell me nothing about the learning of the students, and that’s what interests me.

        Concerning the level of interest in STEM courses, I wonder if health sciences (e.g. medicine, dentistry, nursing, public health, psychology, physiotherapy) are counted as STEM courses.

        I hope that this clarifies my views. Thanks again for your comments. Good night, and good luck.

            1. Yes, which was in reply to your comment that had nothing to do with the post, and which completely screwed up my reply when you fundamentally changed your original comment with an edit.

              Terry, you’re not a proper troll, but you’ll do until one comes along. You’re both irritating the hell out of me.

  4. Ever since these people have promoted nothing but resentment and negativity, obsessed by their never-ending digging to justify their negative suspicions, following nothing but their hunches and guesses or their personal negative experiences, they push us into a never-ending vortex of censorship and obsessive control where they are the high priests who supposedly know what to do. On the other side, we have people like Foucault who, in order to justify his personal sexual macabre, call upon us to cancel all possible norms because they are non-existent. Plaque on both of their houses.

      1. ‘Researchers’ from Camberwell, members of Stonewall, post-modernists, Frankfurt school Marxists, original Marxists and so on.

          1. 🙂 From one side, you have those who would control and censor because only they know what is right and what is wrong. On the other side, you have those who tell us that no norms exist whatsoever.

  5. I don’t find it difficult to use questions that I personally feel are inoffensive to people from a variety of cultures, religions, sexualising, and genders.

    It’s not something I feel burdened by.

    What I feel is actually dangerous is when that becomes weaponised. For example, in the earlier post, I don’t see that as being a problematic question. I don’t think it actually portray gender as binary, implicitly or otherwise. If someone disagrees with me and makes a complaint, and I use a question like that, I might be in trouble.

    I’m not sure if that’s a rational fear to have (I’m not certain it could actually happen), but if organisations veto those questions already, then maybe I should re-evaluate.

  6. Question (mostly for Marty, but others are welcome to suggest the answer): when ACER writes about “The assessment community” who or what are they actually trying to suggest is pushing the agenda?

    Let me elaborate, but only a little bit: teachers/lecturers write assessments. But so do examination boards and countless other groups who may well have significant overlap, but I’m struggling to comprehend how these diverse and often detached groups are somehow pushing an agenda.

    Maybe I’ve missed the point, but I find the central assumption of ACER’s (they published it, so I’m referring to it as their publication) argument seems to be a bit… rubbish? Maybe rubbish is the wrong word, but I can’t think of a better one just yet.

    1. Thanks, RF. It’s a good question with probably no good answer.

      The ACER article is one “comment” piece from one UK clown. So determining the intended target/audience probably isn’t worth too much scrutiny. The reasons I posted on this are: (a) the article is so absurd, and it crystallises so well the nonsense and nastiness of gender fetishising; (b) it’s an ACER thing, and ACER loves to come across as More Intelligent Than Thou; (c) there are at least some people in “the assessment community” who are taking this specific article seriously. (I will have more on (c) in a coming post.)

      But, to answer your question as best as possible:

      (1) Your “pushing the agenda” is ambiguous as to which agenda: the gender stereotyping, or the anti-stereotyping? If the former, I assume the suggestion is that this stereotyping is more from unconscious assumptions and bias than from a conscious agenda.

      (2) Who is “the assessment community” is a good question. I guess it naturally includes anybody who sets test questions, from education authorities and formal testing outfits, such as ACER and VCAA, down to individual teachers. But a more direct question is who ACER writes for, either in this instance or generally. Do they expect to be read just by authorities, who might also then pass on the message/commandments, or do they also imagine teachers read this stuff? I don’t know, and I don’t know in practice who reads this stuff (except see (c), above).

    2. Of course it is rubbish and there is no any assessment group or anything else that would suggest even a partially serious scientific approach. It is search for grants and nothing else. Just search for grants!

  7. I’ve found that it’s often helpful to use ‘gendered’ names and specific pronouns in examples in contexts involving two people, e.g. for a basic explanation of the RSA cryptosystem,

    – Anna thinks of two large primes
    – She finds their product N, identifies an integer e coprime to phi(N), and sends the pair (N, e) to Bob
    – To send Anna a message, Bob then splits his message into chunks of size M < N, and sends her the value of M^e mod N
    – To decrypt his message, Anna identifies a decoder d satisfying ed == 1 mod phi(N) and computes M == (M^e)^d mod N using the value he sent

    Written like this, it's much clearer what's actually happening (as opposed to using third-person pronouns everywhere), and I don't think this comes at a cost of alienating students or reinforcing sexist views.

    1. Alice and Bob are the archetypical names used when explaining many things ranging from the RSA cryptosystem to quantum entanglement. For many reasons including the ones you state.
      It is insanity to kowtow to those who ‘feel alienated’ when such names are used.

    2. In most Michael Haneke films the two leads are called Anne and George, cos as a guy called William Shakesman once said, what’s in a f*cking name?

  8. Most people realise it’s all bullshit by now. My fear is that when the pendulum swings back, things will be much worse. Who would you choose between One Nation or these loonies running the country? I’d go with the latter right now, but it’s only a matter of time before One Nation becomes the more reasonable of the two.

    1. One Nation, for instance, is disgusting. You would have to convince me they are worse or more dangerous.

      But in any case, so what? It’s not about choosing sides. It’s about calling out lunacy (or sense) no matter the source, and no matter who else is calling it out.

      1. The problem is that a large enough segment of the population doesn’t think like that.

        And unfortunately due to the way our political system works, we do have to choose sides when we vote.

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