I’ve set up this blog because I want to start a debate about gender bias in picture books.

I think that the output of the picture book industry reflects girls’ tastes more than it does boys’ and that this bias is exacerbating the gender gap between boys’ and girls’ reading abilities.

My argument, based on my experience as both an author and a parent, is set out in the three essays below.

scroll down further for blog posts

cool not cute: what boys really want from picture books

This two-part essay contains my main argument.

Part 1: The Uneven Playing Field explains how publishers, schools, libraries and parents all play a role in making the content of picture books less appealing to boys than girls.

Part 2: What Boys Really Want from Picture Books lists some of the boy-friendly ingredients missing from most picture books and suggests ways to tackle the gender gap.

Click here to view/download a pdf of COOL not CUTE Click here to view/download an Executive Summary of the essay

nature and nurture: boys will be boys

This essay looks at some of the scientific evidence that suggests there are innate differences in boys' and girls' preferences.

Click here to view/download a pdf of NATURE and NURTURE

fighters and fashionistas: the spectre of stereotyping

This essay addresses concerns about gender stereotyping which may arise from the assertion that some preferences are boy or girl-typical.

Click here to view/download a pdf of FIGHTERS and FASHIONISTAS

Errata: As well as correcting typographical errors, I've made some corrections to factual errors in the articles above since they were published, which are listed here.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Should gender balancing the books be for adults only?

Last year VIDA, an American organisation for women in the literary arts, published an analysis that revealed a conspicuous lack of gender balance in book reviewing, prompting The Guardian to observe that “male authors and reviewers continue to take a disproportionate slice of the literary pie”. Most of the publications covered in the VIDA analysis were American periodicals, but The Guardian published its own gender balance analysis of UK publications including national newspapers, counting up the numbers of male and female reviewers and authors under review in March 2013. The analysis revealed a relatively small imbalance in fiction (50% of reviewers and 46% of authors were women) but a strong male bias in non-fiction, with only 29% of reviewers and 36% of authors being female. The conclusion was that “the UK book world still suffers from a sharp divide along gender lines” and the consensus seemed to be that newspapers and literary journals must try harder to gender balance their book reviewing.

The Guardian’s analysis focused on the reviewing of books for adults but, as a children’s author interested in gender bias, I was curious to know about the gender balance of UK children’s book reviewing. So I conducted my own analysis of the children’s books reviewed by five UK national newspapers in 2013. I only counted regular reviews of newly published books in the book sections of the print editions of each newspaper. So blog-only reviews (including reader reviews), author interviews, lists of 10 best genre books and reading advice in The Guardian’sBook Doctor” and The Telegraph’sAsk Lorna” were not included. Picture books were counted as being half-authored by both author and illustrator and the reviews from the Sunday editions were included in the overall count for each paper.
There’s a pronounced imbalance among reviewers, with less than a fifth of picture books and less than a third of children’s fiction being reviewed by men

The analysis is divided into children’s picture books and children’s and teen fiction and encompasses 462 book reviews. It reveals another strong gender bias — only in this instance in the opposite direction, with the majority of reviews and the majority of books being selected for review being written by women. The imbalance is less marked among authors; 47% of the picture books and 41% of the children’s fiction reviewed was by male authors. However there’s a pronounced imbalance among reviewers, with less than a fifth of picture books and less than a third of children’s fiction being reviewed by men.

(Click image to see a larger version)

One of the justifications given for gender balancing adult book reviews is that reviewers tend to review books that are written by their own sex. This tendency is evident in the female reviewers in this sample. The bias is marginal for picture books — 49% of the picture books reviewed by female reviewers were by male authors and illustrators — but more pronounced for children’s fiction, with only 38% of fiction reviewed by female reviewers being written by male authors. This imbalance was quite conspicuous in some instances; in The Observer’s summer round-up of children’s books, only one of the twelve books recommended for older children and teens (by two female reviewers) was written by a man.
In The Observer’s summer round-up of children’s books, only one of the twelve books recommended for older children and teens (by two female reviewers) was written by a man.

However the tendency is reversed for male reviewers. The 14 male fiction reviewers in the sample reviewed marginally more books (51%) by female authors. And 60% of the picture books reviewed by The Independent’s Nicolas Tucker (the only man among the 13 picture book reviewers in the sample) were by female authors and illustrators.

The Guardian’s analysis of adult book reviews showed a strong pro-male bias in the reviewing of non-fiction books. Arguably another sign of pro-female bias in children’s book reviews is the scarcity of non-fiction. In the All-Party Parliamentary Boys’ Reading Commission report published by the National Literacy Trust in 2012, Phil Jarrett, National Adviser for English at Ofsted states that: “We know that boys tend to read different kinds of texts from girls — non-fiction, autobiographies, newspapers and so on — yet the English curriculum largely values certain kinds of narrative fiction texts”. It seems that most children’s books reviewers share these same values. While adult review sections can be equally split between fiction and non-fiction, only 2% (10 out of 472) of the newly published children’s books reviewed in this analysis were non-fiction. This is such a small sample it would be unwise to read too much into it, but 9 of these 10 reviews were written by female reviewers and there was an even split in the sexes of the authors and illustrators. 5 of the 10 non-fiction reviews came from The Guardian’s book section and special mention should also be made of GrrlScientist, The Guardian’s science blogger who posted 21 reviews of children’s non-fiction science books in the science section of The Guardian web site in 2013.

This scarcity of children’s non-fiction reviewing is exacerbating a decline in children’s non-fiction publishing that has been happening for some years. In 2012, children’s non-fiction author Jenny Vaughn claimed that: “Publishers have cut back, partly because of people like Waterstones completely cutting back on non-fiction about six or seven years ago.” There is still a lot of brilliantly written and illustrated children’s non-fiction being published each year, but a parent of a child of either sex with a taste for non-fiction books is unlikely to find out about them by reading the children’s book reviews in the national newspapers.

Of course the dominance of women in children’s book reviewing reflects the fact that jobs that are associated with children, particularly very young children, have long been the preserve of women and many – if not most – men are currently quite happy to leave it that way. One justification that might be made for the lack of men among children’s book reviewers is that women are simply far more eager to review children’s books than men are. However a similar justification has long been given for the under-representation of women in adult book reviewing. Describing her time as a literary editor in the 1970s, Claire Tomalin recalled: "I tried very hard both at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times to find and use more women reviewers — but I also remember being attacked for not doing better. The truth is, there were many more men eager to review”. And in response to last year’s VIDA study The Guardian’s books editor Claire Armitstead commented that: "We always try to keep an even balance but many more men offer themselves to review books than women, so we have to go out and find them.” I think it’s reasonable to suggest that books editors might take a similarly proactive approach to gender balancing their children’s book reviews and go out and find a few men.

The lack of gender balance among children’s book reviewers isn’t difficult to recognise and anyone familiar with the world of children’s literature will be well aware of it. So why doesn’t it draw the same level of media coverage and righteous indignation as the lack of gender balance in adult book reviewing? I think there are three assumptions that explain this, all of which need challenging.
Surely we ought to be applying as much care and attention to the reviewing of books for children as we do to the reviewing of books for adults?

The first assumption is that children’s literature is less important than adult literature, so the manner in which it is reviewed warrants less care and attention. Is this really true? Children’s books, and picture books in particular, are where we take our first faltering steps into the world of literature. First impressions are important and unappealing children’s books can give children the impression that all books are unappealing. The books we read as children, when we’re still developing an understanding of the world, can be hugely instrumental in shaping that understanding. Surely we ought to be applying as much care and attention to the reviewing of books for children as we do to the reviewing of books for adults?

The second assumption is that gender is entirely irrelevant to reading tastes, so it does not matter if one sex is disproportionally represented among reviewers. I doubt that many people would take this same argument seriously if it were used to justify the disproportionate number of men in the world of adult book reviewing. All children are different and reading tastes can’t be neatly separated according to gender but, whether through nature and nurture or nurture alone, some tastes are clearly gender-typical.

The third assumption is that gender balance is less important when men are in the minority. It may seem inappropriate to be highlighting the under-representation of men in a society in which the under-representation of women is a far, far greater problem. However equality ought to work both ways and I believe that the lack of gender balance in the world of children’s books is a key factor underlying the growing gender gap in children’s literacy. Boys do not find books as appealing as girls currently do and this is reflected in the fact that boys’ average reading abilities are lagging behind that of girls by the equivalent of one year's schooling. The growing gender gap in literacy is linked to the growing gender gap in academic achievement as a whole; the number of girls applying for university in 2014 was more than a third larger than the number of boys.

I’m a picture book author and evidence shows that the literacy gender gap takes root at picture book age. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the same age at which female reviewers are most dominant. While the gender balance of picture book authors and illustrators matches that of the intended readership (roughly 50:50 male:female) the chain of gatekeepers that link these two groups is far from gender-balanced. In this 2013 sample, female picture book reviewers outnumbered males by a ratio of 12:1. Similarly overwhelming female to male ratios can be found among picture book publishers, infant teachers, children’s librarians and, perhaps most significantly, picture book buyers, the majority of whom are adult women. Whether a picture book is being accepted for publication, selected for use in a school or library, purchased in a bookshop or recommended in a newspaper, the people judging its appeal are overwhelmingly female.
Whether a picture book is being accepted for publication, selected for use in a school or library, purchased in a bookshop or recommended in a newspaper, the people judging its appeal are overwhelmingly female

For this reason the relatively even gender split of authors and illustrators in the analysis should not be taken as showing that the range of picture books reviewed will appeal equally to both sexes. As a male author, I’ve learnt to write for a market that is dominated by female gatekeepers. Even picture books about pirates, dinosaurs, aliens or vehicles that might be characterised as having boy-typical appeal, partially reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be purchasing them. As a consequence, elements such as combat, technology, peril and villainy are often toned down or omitted altogether. A lot of content that’s commonly found in children’s TV, films and video games watched or played by 4-6 year olds is often deemed unappealing or inappropriate for picture books. This rejected content appeals to children of both sexes but it’s particularly appealing to boys and I think this is one reason many boys reject books in favour of these other media. I still love writing picture books and feel privileged to be able to make a living doing it – I just wish that the stories I’m able to get published could respond to boy-typical tastes as uncompromisingly as they do to girl-typical tastes. And it’s not just boys that are missing out; there are plenty of girls with boy-typical tastes who would enjoy reading these stories too.

Studies have shown that male protagonists outnumber female protagonists in picture books by a ratio of 2:1 and this is clearly an issue that needs addressing. This imbalance could be taken as demonstrating a pro-male bias across the picture book industry as a whole, similar to the pro-male bias evident in the male-dominated Hollywood film industry. However anyone familiar with the demographics of the UK picture book industry ought to appreciate that the situation is more complex than that. It’s overwhelmingly female publishers that are choosing to publish more books with male protagonists and overwhelmingly female picture book buyers that are choosing to purchase them.

Gender balancing children’s book reviewing would not require existing women reviewers being replaced by men. The most appropriate way for books editors to even out the numbers is to supplement their existing children’s team with additional reviewers. On her final day as Children’s Laureate in 2013, Julia Donaldson highlighted the fact that while children’s books account for a quarter of all UK book sales, less than a fortieth of the review space in UK newspapers is dedicated to them and contrasted this situation with Germany and the US where children’s literature is given far more attention. We excel at writing and illustrating children’s books in this country, so let’s get a few more men in to bolster the ranks of children’s reviewers and help highlight what’s best in children’s literature. And let’s start giving the best of our children’s non-fiction books the attention they deserve as well.

The data from the analysis is available in both MS Excel and PDF format below. If you spot any errors in the data,  let me know and I will endeavour to correct them.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Another all-female Carnegie Greenaway judging panel – but I’ve decided to draw a line under my gender-balance campaign.

I noticed last week that the “Meet the Judges” page of the Carnegie Greenaway site had been updated to show this year’s judging panel. As was the case in 2013, there are no men among the 13 judges.

This wasn't a surprise as the organisers had told me this would be the case last November (the judges having already been selected). Nevertheless, having spent the last year trying to persuade the Youth Libraries Group to adopt a gender-balanced panel, I’m obviously disappointed with this outcome. I’d like to stress again that I don’t question the suitability of any of the individual judges – I am simply questioning the appropriateness of a single-sex judging panel for awards given to books for children of both sexes.

The gender balance of the Carnegie Greenaway and the Man Booker judging panels for the last decade.
Click the image to see a larger version.

I had said at the end of my last post that I intended to keep pressing the case. However, having reflected on it for a couple of weeks, I’ve now decided not to.

I’m still convinced that, given the gender gap in children's literacy, the UK’s most prestigious children’s literature awards ought to have a gender-balanced judging panel. However, the only people that can bring about this change are the YLG members who select the judges. Over the last few months I’ve been able to put the case for gender-balanced judging to YLG members through their newsletter. Having been granted a fair hearing, I accept that it’s now down to the members themselves to decide if they want to make a change. So I’m going to use this post to recap a few key points before drawing a line under my campaign for the foreseeable future.

Here are three things I knew when I started the campaign (but have been told repeatedly) and three things I’ve learnt over the course of the last year.

Three things I knew when I started


At the end of my COOL not CUTE essay about the wider gender-bias in the world of picture books, I concluded that if one demographic group was to blame for this bias, “it is adult men, for failing to take sufficient interest in what young children are reading.” I recognise that the lack of men on the Carnegie Greenaway panel reflects the lack of men among the YLG membership. However I think there is little chance that this imbalance will change unless men that are willing to join the panel are actively encouraged to do so. My suggestion that the regions select judges on an alternating male/female basis is not that different from the approach that the Labour Party now uses to encourage its local parties to select female parliamentary candidates.

2: Even if there is a gender balance problem in children’s books, the makeup of the Carnegie Greenaway panel would only represent a tiny part of it.

I set up this blog to highlight what I believe to be a female bias in the world of picture books. All-female Carnegie Greenaway panels are only a tiny part of this, but they’re emblematic of a wider gender-imbalance among all the gatekeeper groups that judge what's appealing and appropriate for young children to read. By highlighting the lack of gender-balance in two such prestigious awards I hoped to raise awareness of the wider issue. I’ve argued elsewhere for gender balance in other, more influential, gatekeeper groups, such as consumers, and will continue to do so.

3: The awards are judged in strict accordance with fixed criteria.

It’s been argued that the judging criteria of the Carnegie and Greenaway ensure that the awards are judged objectively. The Greenaway’s criteria relate to a picture book’s artistic and aesthetic qualities, its typography and how the text relates to the illustrations, while the Carnegie’s criteria relate to a novel’s plotting, characterisation and the effectiveness of its writing style. I accept that these criteria provide a focus for the judges’ deliberations, but each individual judge’s opinion of how well a book meets these criteria is still subjective. Indeed if the judges don’t have differing subjective opinions, then why are there thirteen of them? If one reason for having such a large panel is to reflect a wide range of views when making a judgement, then, at a time when children’s books appeal less to boys than girls, shouldn’t that range incorporate male views as much as female ones?

Three things I’ve learnt in the last year

1: The individual judges are selected by the YLG regions they represent and the awards organisers have no influence over their selection.

I initially wrote to the awards organisers to try to persuade them to take a gender-balanced approach to panel selection. However it has since been explained to me that the judges are selected by the YLG members in each of the regions they represent. Once selected, each judge serves two years and there is a rolling programme of changes so that each judging panel includes a mix of year 1 and year 2 judges.

2: There is a gender balance issue with picture book protagonists.

In her response to my YLG newsletter article, awards organiser Joy Court refers to Liza Miller’s MA dissertation “Society and Commercialism: Core Factors in Picture Book Sex Stereotyping” which reveals that male protagonists outnumber female protagonists in Greenaway-winning picture books by a ratio of 2:1. This imbalance could be interpreted as demonstrating a bias towards male protagonists among Greenaway judges, however Miller’s dissertation suggests that it’s a reflection of a bias in the output of the picture book industry as a whole. While the under-representation of female characters is clearly an issue that needs addressing, I don’t think a bias towards male protagonists can be taken to demonstrate a pro-male bias across picture book content as a whole.

3: There are other, equally important, inclusivity issues that should be considered in the judging of children’s book awards.

Liza Miller’s dissertation touches briefly on racial representation, stating that “not a single Asian or African character has ever featured in a Kate Greenaway-winning picture book.” Again, it should be stressed that this under-representation reflects the output of the picture book industry as a whole. Having said which, there has only been one non-white judge on the Carnegie Greenaway panel in the last eight years*. I have tried to make the case for wider inclusivity in the judging of children’s book awards in this blog post.

The Greenaway and Carnegie have always made an invaluable contribution to raising the profile of children’s books and promoting children’s literacy for both sexes. If only one YLG region decides to take gender balance and wider inclusivity into account when selecting their judges, it will help make these two great awards even greater.

*Judging by the photographs of each year's judges on the Carnegie Greenaway web site. I was only able to obtain complete sets of photographs from 2007 onwards.

Read all the posts on gender-balancing the judging of the Carnegie Greenaway

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 6

Following on from my last post, here's my response to the points raised by Ferelith Hordon and Clive Barnes in the December edition of the YLG Newsletter.
Thank you to Ferelith and Clive for taking the time to address my comments. 
My main argument is that the content of picture books is generally less appealing to boys than the content of children’s TV, films and video games and that this difference is exacerbating the literacy gender gap. Ferelith agrees that we need to see a much wider range of content in picture books, but argues that the problem lies principally with publishers and not with book awards such as the Carnegie Greenaway. At the end of my “COOL not CUTE” essay I provide a long list of suggestions as to how this content problem might be addressed. Gender-balancing the judging of children’s book awards is literally the last suggestion on that list, which starts with suggestions as to how publishers might address the problem before going on to suggest ways in which other gate-keeper groups including booksellers, teachers and parents, can help.
While individuals in each of these gatekeeper groups might recognise the difference in content I’ve outlined, they’ll often claim that the problem lies elsewhere. For instance, some picture book publishers will acknowledge that “Star Wars” style combat is very appealing to many four-year-olds, but will tell you that this sort of content is not suitable for picture books, because parents won’t buy it or that it will stop schools buying the book or that it will prevent the book from being bought by a US publisher (which can make or break a picture book deal). Conversely, parents have told me that this is exactly the sort of picture book that would appeal to their child, if only publishers were to make them available. The Literacy Trust’s 2012 report on boys' literacy acknowledges that "some boys are not getting access to materials which interest them" and notes that "some teachers and librarians asserted that it is a supply issue and linked it to the female bias of the publishing industry”. The reality is everyone involved with picture books is in some small way responsible for this difference in content and everyone needs to take the initiative to address it. 
Supporters of children’s literature are always arguing that it should be regarded as a serious art form in the same way that adult literature is. However it’s difficult to think of another prestigious mainstream art award that pays so little regard to gender-balance in it's judging. The 2013 Carnegie Greenaway panel was judged by an all-female panel of 13 judges. Imagine the fuss if next year’s Turner prize for art or Booker Prize for adult literature were judged by an all-male panel of industry professionals instead of the gender-balanced panels that have become the accepted norm for these awards. I think that most people would accept that it was not “inappropriate, impractical” or “insulting” to suggest that a mixed sex panel was the best way to judge art forms that are intended to appeal to both sexes.
Clive is right to say that societal attitudes towards boys reading have a huge influence on the literacy gender gap. However I’d take issue with his claim that availability of appealing content has no influence; I think there’s an interplay between the two. I agree that men and women don’t have “entirely different” reading tastes; the same diverse range of tastes is evident in both sexes. However there are clear differences between the two, with certain content types being more popular with more individuals of one sex than the other. Whether these differences are caused by a combination of nature and nurture or by nurture alone is a contentious issue, but – whatever their causes – the differences are still evident. 
There are many books, such as “Zoom!”, published each year that are particularly appealing to boys. However there’s a big difference between the relatively safe and cosy sort of content that’s found in books like “Zoom!” and the dangerous and exciting content found in children's TV shows such as “Ben 10” which many children of picture book age are watching. Some children might prefer Zoom’s content to Ben 10’s and vice versa, but picture books need to accurately reflect both sets of tastes if they are to compete with the appeal of television and other media.
Newsletter editor Helen Thompson has decided to call time on the debate as far as the newsletter is concerned and I understand that the email above is the last response from me that the newsletter will publish on the issue. I'd like to thank Helen again for giving me the opportunity to put the case to the YLG membership.

While the both the emails the newsletter received have dismissed the case for a gender-balanced Carnegie Greenaway panel, the response I've had elsewhere has been more encouraging and I intend to keep pressing the case. So if you'd like to continue the debate, please get in touch or post a comment on this blog.

Read all posts on gender-balancing the judging of the Carnegie Greenaway

Friday, 27 December 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 5

In addition to my own email, included in my last post, the December edition of the YLG Newsletter included two other emails from YLG members responding to my call for the Carnegie and Greenaway to be judged by a gender-balanced panel. Both emails are shown below.

I understand why Jonathan Emmett makes his "complaint" and I agree that we need to see a much wider range of material in the picture book boxes. I had sons who would have loved a "Star Wars" content but they didn't get turned off other material. However, this is not a simple matter to unravel. In particular it partly stems from the British attitude to picture books which firmly places them at the youngest - and I mean youngest - end of the spectrum. By four, I suggest children are being consciously steered away from books with the type of pictorial content that is the norm in a picture book. And this happens both in school and the home. Does this mean that illustrators do not think to choose such content. I am sure there are plenty of young illustrators who would love to create stories of derring do - are they then firmly directed to the "graphic novel"? (There is a body of work devoted to Star Wars et al in this area which would attract young children - though not the parents) 
I suspect content in picture books is often a publishing decision - is Jonathan suggesting publishers monitor the gender of their commissioning editors? Surely that would be the first place to start. The publishing decision is then tied into the marketing decisions - and here we are into a "chicken and egg" situation. Is publishing responding to demand? Is demand shaped by the market? There are quite a number of areas that are not adequately represented in picture books which one is given to understand is because they would not sell. 
When we come to the Greenaway, I think Jonathan has not clearly taken on board what the Greenaway is. He certainly realises that there are criteria. But the nominations come from the grass roots, public librarians and school librarians, looking at picture books of all types; looking at the illustration - not the "story" as such. It may be that the library profession has an imbalance, though I do not think this is particularly relevant. I think the problem arises when we do not have enough qualified librarians in our Children's Libraries and Schools. I would suggest if the material was there to nominate it would be. The judging committee can only select from those nominations and whether it is a thrilling adventure or a reflective look at death, if the illustrations have the quality demanded it will get shortlisted. Of course, we want our committee to be representative of all views and a mix is very welcome and the ideal - but can girls not respond to adventure as much as boys? Jonathan's solution is interesting and radical, but I feel both inappropriate , impractical - and, dare I say, somewhat insulting to both sides. However, his comments are salutary, reminding us that judging must be done against the criteria and that personal views and taste must take a backseat. I would like to point out that the last three winners have all been male, each demonstrating very different approaches to illustrating. The Greenaway is one prize - a very important one - but the illustrations have to be there for the judging committee to judge. There is clearly a gap in the market - the Greenaway cannot fill it just like that. Authors and illustrators get writing; publishers, publish - then we will see.

I think Joy has made the main point that needs to be made in regard to the make-up of the Carnegie/Greenaway panel: it’s a panel of practising children’s librarians and there is nothing to prevent men from serving on it, it’s just that, as in many professions dealing with children, particularly young children, children’s librarians are mostly female. And, if Jonathan believes that gender imbalance is playing a major role in retarding boy’s literacy, then it needs to be pointed out that it’s an imbalance right across the education sector in pre-schools and primary schools, an imbalance that’s related to gender roles throughout society rather than to one book award panel. 
Perhaps, to look at it slightly differently, the problem with boy’s literacy may actually be related to the very kind of sexual stereotyping that seems to form the basis of Jonathan’s argument: that boys prefer space, fighting and machines; and girls like, well, something else, which Jonathan leaves unspecified, but probably has to do with caring, sharing and, possibly, reading. 
A long time ago, when I was a boy, my father left me in no doubt, through many hints and wry comments, that my love of reading was rather peculiar. Surely I should be out kicking a ball with my mates or making something with Meccano (so long ago that it’s unrecognised by spell checker)? Would I not end up a friendless mother’s boy? And you know the implications there. 
Although I was happy to read anything, Little Women included, I was reading a lot of stuff about war and fighting that had hardly any girls in it at all. This was just the sort of book that Jonathan might assume I would be reading, and you can still find them today, although, granted, not for four year olds. But that didn’t make the slightest difference to my dad. It didn’t matter what I was reading, it was the fact that I was so keen on reading that didn’t seem natural to him. That, as I’ve said, was a long time ago, but I think that attitude is still out there and it’s tied up not only with the kind of expectations we have of boys and girls but also with class background and attitudes to education, all of which feed into publishing for children. That, I feel, is what is behind the lower literacy rates among boys. Not that we don’t provide enough of what they would like to read but that we imply in so many small but telling ways that reading is not something that boys do. I don’t think changing the make-up of the Carnegie/Greenaway judging panel would make much difference there. 
Nor do I think a gender balanced panel would necessarily choose different books. There’s no reason to think they would unless you are convinced that men and women have entirely different reading tastes or can’t put aside personal preferences in favour of more objective criteria. I’ve served on one or two judging panels (not the Carnegie) and on library book selection panels with a roomful of fellow professionals who were women and never felt I had to act as a spokesperson for male tastes. Finally, of course, the Carnegie and Greenaway awards don’t make that much difference to what gets published, especially since library book funds have shrunk, however happy the recipients and their publishers are to get them. 
Finally, just to remind Jonathan that he was twice the winner of an award that I was associated with: The Southampton Favourite Book to Share Award for a pre-school title. His winning picture/pop up books in 2003 and 2006 were Turtle in the Toilet and Zoom, both books which I’m pretty confident he would agree have boy appeal, and which were initially selected by female library staff and promoted and voted for mainly by female pre-school staff and mums, as well as the kids themselves. It goes to show that women can recognise a good book when they see it.
I've written a further email (which I'll include in a subsequent post) to the YLG Newsletter in which I attempt to address some of the points made by Ferelith and Clive in their emails above.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 4

Joy Court's reply to my YLG article, which I included in my last update, raised a few points that I wanted to address, so here's my response which can also be found in the December issue of the YLG newsletter.

I’d like to respond to some of the points Joy made in her reply to my article.

I’m afraid I don’t accept that the CKG judging criteria ensure objectivity as many individual criterion, such as “the overall impact of the book on the reader”, are open to subjective judgement. Children’s literature is an art not a science; is it really possible to judge objectively that the characters in one book are more “believable and convincing” than the characters in another? Indeed if the judges don’t have differing subjective opinions on which books best meet the criteria, then why are there so many judges? I imagine that one reason for having 13 judges is to reflect a wide range of views when making a judgement. If that is the case then, at a time when children’s books appeal more to one sex than the other, shouldn’t that range incorporate male views as much as female ones?

While I accept that some regions might reject the idea of selecting judges on an alternating male/female basis, I hope that others might recognise some merit in doing this. If only one region were to adopt such a system, it would be a step in the right direction.

In the last decade female CKG judges have outnumbered male CKG judges by a ratio of 10:1. A similar female to male ratio can be found across all the gatekeeper roles in the world of picture books, from commissioning editors through to the adults that purchase the books. Given the overwhelming number of female gatekeepers, it is odd that so few picture books feature female characters. Nevertheless, this is an issue that needs addressing.

Having a male protagonist is one of several ingredients that I think is likely to make a story more appealing to boys. The point I make about male protagonists in my COOL not CUTE essay is that picture books are more likely to cater to girls with boy-typical tastes than they are to cater to boys with girl-typical tastes. In the same essay I mention that Eileen Browne’s technology themed picture book No Problem was a big hit with my three-year-old son and cite it as an example of a book with strong technological appeal. Although books about technology typically appeal to boys, all five of the book’s characters are female. Similarly, although pirate stories typically appeal to boys, there are a growing number of picture books featuring female pirates, such as Peter Harris’s The Night Pirates in which all the pirate characters are girls. The situation is very different for picture books that have content that typically appeals to girls; can you think of any ballet or princess/prince themed picture books in which all the dancers or glamorous royals are male? As I’ve argued in another essay, FIGHTERS and FASHIONISTAS, it’s just as important to cater to boys with girl-typical tastes as it is to cater for girls with boy-typical tastes. Personally, I think a gender-balanced approach to casting is preferable to replacing a single-sex cast with a single-sex cast of the opposite sex. That way children of both sexes will be able to find characters that they can readily identify with, whether the book is about technology or ballet-dancing.

Having said which, the central argument of COOL not CUTE is about the sort of content that is generally deemed appropriate and appealing for picture books, regardless of the sex of the protagonist or the authors and illustrators that create them.

Despite our differences in opinion, I’m very grateful to Joy for giving me the opportunity to publicly debate this issue with her and would like to state once more that I recognise that the Greenaway and Carnegie both do a tremendous job of raising the profile of children’s books and promoting children’s literacy for both sexes.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 3

I mentioned in my last update that I’d written an article putting the case for a gender-balanced Carnegie Greenaway judging panel for the October 2013 issue of the YLG newsletter and that Joy Court, the chair of the awards working party, would give her response in the November issue.

Here is my article:

Outside of writing and illustrating them, men don’t seem to be as interested in picture books as women are. There are relatively few men working in the picture book industry and most picture books are bought by women. And most teachers, reviewers and librarians that work with picture books are women too. 
I believe that the scarcity of men in these gatekeeper roles means that picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones and that this bias is exacerbating the gender gap in children’s literacy. It’s an issue I’ve written about at length at coolnotcute.com. 
When my son was four years old, he and his friends were obsessed with Star Wars, a saga of good versus evil, packed with deadly combat, sophisticated technology, murderous villains and threatening predicaments. The four Star Wars films available at the time were all U certificates, showing that — in the BBFC’s judgment — their content was appropriate for four-year-olds. I struggled to find my son picture books with a similar appeal. There were books that featured aliens and spacecraft, but their content was far tamer and cuter than that of the films. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as my son’s enthusiasm for Star Wars grew, his interest in books waned. 
In my experience, a lot of content that’s accepted as appealing and age-appropriate for four-year-olds in films, TV shows and video games is often rejected as unappealing and age-inappropriate for picture books. This rejected content appeals to children of both sexes, but it’s especially appealing to boys, and its exclusion from picture books is one reason that some young boys turn to other media that reflect their tastes more accurately. There are still plenty of picture books published each year that many boys find appealing, but all children are different and picture books don’t reflect the full range of boys’ tastes as effectively as they do girls’. I think the scarcity of male gatekeepers, judging the appropriateness and appeal of picture book content, is the chief reason for this. 
I’ve suggested a number of ways to get male tastes better represented in picture books. It’s generally accepted that more men ought to read to their children, but it’s equally important that more men start buying children’s books, so that the market is influenced by the tastes of dads and grandpas as much as mums and grandmas. I’ve also suggested that the judging of children’s book awards, the Carnegie Greenaway in particular, ought to reflect male perspectives as much as female ones. 
While gender-balanced judging panels are now the norm for prestigious adult book awards such as the Booker, CKG panels are predominantly female. At a time when children’s books appeal more to girls than boys, I think this imbalance is worth addressing. I understand that the CKG’s judging criteria brings consistency to the way the awards are judged and that a panel of professional librarians will be far more objective than an ordinary panel. However each judge will still have some subjectivity, with differing opinions as to which books are best. Shouldn’t that subjectivity represent male perspectives as much as female ones? 
One way to achieve a gender-balanced panel would be to use alternating single-sex shortlists, with each region selecting a male judge one year and a female judge the next. I realise that adopting such a system would mean over-representing the number of male YLG members, but surely it’s more important for “children’s” book awards to reflect the gender balance of children rather than the profession that serves them.

And here is Joy’s response:

I think the majority of the profession would agree that they dislike gender stereotypical publishing of any sort and indeed might contend that the problem is even more severe when children move out of picture books into chapter books and beyond. High Street bookstores can appear almost as colour coded as the clothing ranges available for babies! 
There would also be absolutely no excuse for having a non-gender balanced judging panel if the judges were indeed selected, but as we initially explained, the judges are elected democratically by their regional committee. This means that our panels are at least geographically diverse unlike, I would suggest, the Booker panels etc. They also stand for a two year period and around half of the panel changes each year so that each panel will have a mix of experienced and brand new judges. This would, I am afraid, negate the suggestion of alternating male and female judges from a region each year.

But even if we were to ask each region to alternate the gender of their judges every two years would this even be possible? While we might hope that Jonathan’s piece will make the male members of YLG feel that they should join their regional committee and get actively involved, we cannot force them to do so and therefore we cannot force our committees to do that. But for all that it has been unusual that for the last couple of years there have been all female judges.

However our main point is that, unlike so many of the major awards, we have a published set of criteria and both nominations and judging are conducted solely by reference to those and suitability or appeal to either gender is not one of them. I do not believe that anybody could find any gender bias in the criteria themselves. In the Greenaway we primarily look for outstanding artistic quality and where text exists particular attention should be paid to the synergy between the two. 
Jonathan, in our conversations, has maintained that nevertheless our judgement and taste is still subjective! But the fact remains that of the 57 Greenaway winners 34 have been men and as Eileen Browne quotes in her fascinating article: Two to One - Females Outnumbered by Males in Children's Picture Books, (Write4Children Vol IV Issue II. p 157. ) “Liza Miller, an MA student at City University, London, had analysed the seventy-five main characters in thirty-two Kate Greenaway Medal winners between 1956 and 2010. Her results were the same as mine: Females were outnumbered by males in picture books by about 2:1. Female animal characters were underrepresented by 4.5:1 — less than 20% had female characters.” 
So it would seem that the evidence suggests that female judges over the years have primarily chosen books which are about males. However I realise that Jonathan’s points are more about the plot and style than merely characters. The fact remains that our role is restricted to judging what is actually published. Perhaps his campaigning should be aimed at the editorial and marketing departments of children’s publishers? We would be delighted to publish a response from any of our publisher friends. 
It was disappointing to receive no member responses to this interesting post, but it is nevertheless good that the issue has been raised and hopefully we will see more men responding to the call to arms! Meanwhile it is my job to ensure that the judging will continue to be carried out with the highest possible standards, as objectively as possible and always with reference to the criteria.

Joy Court, Chair of the Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Awards Working Party

Joy has raised a number of new points which I’ll address in my next post, but in the meantime please feel free to post your own responses below.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

"Fear of sexism has produced a bias against conceding sex differences"

The title of this post is a quote from a 2011 Slate article by William Saletan. The article was written in response to a panel discussion of “The Promise and Peril of Research on Sex Differences” at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2011 and is an excellent primer for anyone interested in the debate on innate sex differences.

The panel, which consisted of neuroscientist Lise Eliot, behavioural neurobiologist Larry Cahill and psychologists Melissa Hines, Janet Hyde and Maryjane Wraga, represented a diverse range of expert opinions on this controversial subject.

The article notes that the debate “didn’t settle the controversy, because it isn’t binary, and evidence is complex.” So instead of attempting to present a conclusion, Saletan highlights ten pitfalls to be wary of when assessing arguments regarding innate sex differences. It’s well worth reading the whole article, but I’m going to pick out five of the pitfalls that Saletan identifies which are particularly relevant to my experience of debating the issue in relation to the gender gap in children’s literacy.

1. Ideology

In my experience the belief that “there’s no such thing as innate sex differences” is often rooted in ideology rather than evidence. I commented in an earlier post that I suspect that many people who hold this belief are not aware of the evidence that helped establish it – or the degree to which this evidence has subsequently been discredited. For some people acknowledging innate sex differences is indistinguishable from sexism and so ideologically out of bounds – regardless of the evidence. Saletan notes that “fear of sexism has produced a bias against conceding sex differences, which gets in the way of frank discussion and investigation.”

2. Casual Extrapolation

Saletan describes psychologist Melissa Hines recalling “an incident in which, after she had described data on toy preference among girls, a male physicist said she had just explained why it was hard to recruit women to teach physics. The leap from dolls to doctorates was effortless, though groundless.”

Similarly inappropriate extrapolations are often made by individuals on both sides of the innate sex differences debate. One thing that distinguishes Hines’s book Brain Gender from many others on the subject is the way in which Hines studiously avoids such extrapolations.

3. Stereotypes

Saletan notes that “girls differ from boys, but girls also differ from other girls.” And goes on to say that “you certainly can’t infer from a person’s sex how well he or she will do on a test.”

I know from my own experience that no matter how carefully one tries to qualify an argument about sex differences by saying that some girls will have boy-typical reading tastes and vice versa, one will inevitably be accused of stereotyping simply for describing certain reading tastes as boy or girl-typical. In this context “boy-typical” means “commonly associated with boys”, it does not and should not mean “exclusive to boys” or even “better suited to boys”. Saletan explains that sex differences don’t show up as separate clusters, but as “overlapping distributions”, a point I attempted to get across in the “Twin Peaks” section of my essay NATURE and NURTURE.

4. Either/Or

In my experience an Either/Or approach, ranks alongside Ideology as the most commonly encountered pitfall in arguments on sex differences. There’s no reason whatsoever to regard nature and nurture as mutually exclusive factors and yet I’ve heard from several people who seem to assume that the indisputable evidence that nurture influences a child’s reading tastes can also be taken as indisputable evidence that nature has no influence.

The growing number of recent studies demonstrating the influence of nature on children’s preferences are dismissed by the nurture-only lobby as either biased, unreliable or unconvincing. Even if all of these studies were invalid, discrediting the evidence that something is true is not the same as categorically proving it is false. Separate evidence is needed to demonstrate this and as yet no such evidence has come to light.

5. Inferred Immutability

I think one reason many people find innate sex differences difficult to accept is that they associate them with a biologically deterministic view of gender roles. This perception has some justification. In his book The Essential Difference, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen states its central theory thus:
The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.
Saletan comments that “several panelists targeted the word hardwired as a misleading metaphor for explaining the brain”. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, who moderated the panel discussion, regards the brain as plastic and susceptible to change. In her own book Pink Brain, Blue Brain Eliot argues that “adults need to be aware of boy-girl differences so that we can help children compensate for them early on”. Instead of a gender-neutral approach to child development, Eliot advocates differing approaches for boys and girls, which reflect their different preferences, but are intended to close the gaps on their differing abilities. As I said in my essay FIGHTER and FASHIONISTAS, I believe that such an approach can be used to close the gender gap in children’s literacy and this is the type of approach I’m advocating in COOL not CUTE.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update 2

Further to my last update in June, I’m pleased to report that I’ve made some progress with my proposal to get the Carnegie Greenaway Children’s Book Awards judged by a gender-balanced panel.

To set the record straight, I’m told that the organisers drafted a response to the original email I sent them in March but, due to an oversight, it was never sent to me.

Over the summer I got in touch with Joy Court, the new chair of the Carnegie Greenaway working party, who explained to me that the working party have no influence over the selection of individual judges, who are selected by the Youth Libraries Group members in the region each judge represents. However Joy arranged for me to put the case for a gender-balanced judging panel to YLG members through their October newsletter, which can be read here.

I’m very grateful to Joy and the newsletter's editor Helen Thompson for giving the proposal a fair hearing in this way.

Joy's response to the article will be published in the November issue of the newsletter, along with any responses from YLG members.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Why dads need to buy more picture books

This post was originally published on the New Statesman's Cultural Capital blog

Books aren’t cool — or so a growing number of children seem to think. A report just published by the National Literacy Trust reveals "children are spending less of their own time reading and are increasingly embarrassed to be seen reading". According to the report, "children who do not think 'reading is cool' are four times more likely to be below average readers". I think the perception that books aren’t cool has more to do with book content than the act of reading. Specifically, it has to do with the first books most children encounter, which are picture books.

When my son was four years old, he and his friends were obsessed with Star Wars, a saga of good versus evil, packed with deadly combat, sophisticated technology, murderous villains and threatening predicaments. The Star Wars films available at the time were all U certificates, showing that — in the BBFC’s judgment — their content was appropriate for four-year-olds. Such content is rarely found in the cosier, cuter world of picture books. Picture books tend to steer well clear of deadly combat, technology is often simply represented, murderous villains are almost nonexistent and threatening predicaments are few and far between. Small wonder then that many children that relish this sort of “cool” content decide that books aren’t for them and turn to other media that reflect their tastes. For such children, the reading habit is broken before it’s barely begun.

The majority of the "below average readers" referred to in the Literacy Trust report are boys. The report shows that “nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all” and “twice as many boys as girls say that they never read outside of class”. And it’s no coincidence that the type of cool content that’s absent from picture books typically appeals to boys.

In a previous piece for the New Statesman's Cultural Capital blog, I highlighted the fact that that most of the gatekeepers in the world of picture books — commissioning editors, infant teachers, children’s librarians, reviewers – are women. However the picture book industry, like any other industry, is subject to the rule of supply and demand and the most influential gatekeepers are consumers. The overwhelming majority of picture books are bought by women, consequently the picture book market reflects female-typical tastes far more than male-typical ones. Even picture books that are intended to appeal to boys partially reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually purchase them. This won't change unless fathers and grandfathers start buying more picture books.

The Literacy Trust’s report was published to coincide with the launch of its “Literacy Heroes” campaign celebrating people who inspire a love of books. Dads are always being encouraged to read more to their children at bedtimes; I’d like to encourage dads to go one step further and commit another small act of literacy heroism by going into a bookshop and choosing a really cool picture book to read to their kids.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Marketing children’s books for individual sexes is a bad idea — but so is ignoring sex-typical preferences.

Children’s books for him and her. 

I’m aware that some people think that by acknowledging certain reading tastes as boy-typical and girl-typical I am at odds with campaigns seeking to challenge harmful gender stereotyping such as Let Toys Be Toys.

The principles of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign are outlined in this statement on the home page of their web site.

Let Toys Be Toys is asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. 
Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity. Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them.

I wholeheartedly subscribe to these principles, which ought to apply to books as much as toys. Marketing or packaging a book or a toy as “for girls” or “for boys” reinforces stereotypes in a way that can limit the development of a child of either sex. As an author, I want the books I’ve written to be bought and read by as wide an audience as possible. Aside from the stereotyping issue, deterring half that audience by telling them that this book is not for them makes little sense from a business point of view.

What I can’t subscribe to is the dogmatic belief, often held by supporters of campaigns such as this, that sex differences in children’s preferences are entirely determined by environment and upbringing and that nature plays no role whatsoever. Far from promoting equality, I think that this belief is actually hindering the closure of gender gaps in children’s abilities, including literacy.

I’ve described this belief as 'dogmatic' as, in my experience, people that hold it are far more likely to attack the evidence against it than they are to examine the evidence for. Indeed I suspect that some of them may not even be aware of the nature of this evidence, so I’d like to highlight the case study that was the most instrumental in establishing this belief.

In 1965 a Canadian woman, Janet Reimer, gave birth to identical twin sons, Bruce and Brian. A year later, Bruce Riemer lost his entire penis in a botched circumcision. Desperate to give their child as normal a life as possible, Janet and her husband Ron followed the advice of psychologist John Money and began raising their son as girl. Money persuaded the Reimers that gender identity could be determined by upbringing alone and that if Bruce believed he was female and was raised as a girl he could have a relatively normal life as a woman. So the child’s testes were removed and a vagina was formed and Bruce became Brenda. Money explained that for the gender reassignment to be effective, Brenda must never learn of her birth sex and the Riemers agreed to keep this secret from both their children and everyone they interacted with. 

 Left: Psychologist John Money’s case study of John/Joan helped establish the belief that gender identity was determined by upbringing alone.  Right: David Reimer the subject of the John/Joan study. 

Over the following years Money monitored the development of both Brenda and her brother Brian. The fact that Brian was Brenda’s identical twin, a genetic clone, made the case ideal for study, providing Money with a “matched control” that he could use for comparison. In 1972 Money documented the case in a book called Man Woman, Boy Girl. Changing Brian/Brenda’s name to John/Joan to maintain her anonymity, Money reported that the gender reassignment as an unqualified success. He claimed that as a result of being brought up as girl, Brenda had developed girl-typical tastes and contrasted her interest in "dolls, a doll house and a doll carriage" with her brother’s interest in "cars and gas pumps and tools”. A second book, Sexual Signatures, followed in 1975 in which Money claimed that Brenda’s case was “dramatic proof that the gender-identity option is open at birth for normal infants”.

The following excerpt is taken from John Colapinto’s 1997 Rolling Stone article The True Story of John/Joan
“That the twins were reported to have grown into happy, well-adjusted children of opposite sex seemed unassailable proof of the primacy of rearing over biology in the differentiation of the sexes and was the basis for the rewriting of textbooks in a wide range of medical disciplines. Most seriously, the case set a precedent for sex reassignment as the standard treatment for thousands of newborns with similarly injured, or irregular, genitals. It also became a touchstone for the feminist movement in the 1970s, when it was cited as living proof that the gender gap is purely a result of cultural conditioning, not biology. For Dr. John Money, the medical psychologist who was the architect of the experiment, this case was to be the most publicly celebrated triumph of a 40-year career that recently earned him the accolade "one of the greatest sex researchers of the century."
The John/Joan case continued to be presented as unassailable proof that gender identity is simply a result of cultural conditioning for over 25 years, by which time the idea had become widely accepted by both scientists and the general public.

However not everyone had accepted it. Biologist Milton Diamond had always maintained that gender identity had a biological component and had remained sceptical of Money’s theories. He’d been trying to track down the Reimer family for years and in 1997 he finally succeeded. He didn’t succeed in finding Brenda Reimer — because Brenda had undergone surgery to revert to her original sex and was now living as David, quite unaware of how influential his case had become. The account that David Reimer and his family gave of Brenda’s childhood contrasted starkly with the one that Money had published. Throughout her childhood Brenda had rejected the girls' toys she was encouraged to play with and the girls' clothing she was expected to wear in favour of masculine alternatives. "I could see that Brenda wasn't happy as a girl," Janet recalled. "She was very rebellious. She was very masculine, and I could not persuade her to do anything feminine”. Her brother Brian recalled that when Brenda was 6 or 7 years old, her ambition was to be “a garbage man”.

Both twins regarded their sessions with John Money as unpleasant ordeals and described how the avuncular front Money presented to their parents disappeared once the psychologist had the twins on their own. During the sessions Money made the twins rehearse sexual acts with each other as he believed this was needed to establish a “healthy adult gender identity”. At age 8 Brenda began to resist the regular visits to Money’s clinic. By 13 Brenda was suffering from suicidal depression and told her parents she would kill herself if she was made to see Money again, at which point the family broke contact with the psychologist. A year later Brenda’s parents decided to ignore Money’s instructions and told Brenda the truth about her birth gender. She immediately assumed a male identity and began calling herself David. By the time Milton Diamond found him in 1997, David had undergone surgery to reverse his gender reassignment, had married a woman and was a stepfather to three children. David Reimer subsequently committed suicide in 2004.

The realisation that Money had misrepresented the John/Joan case to support his theories sent shockwaves across the scientific and medical community. One unfortunate consequence of the acceptance of Money’s theories was that gender reassignment had become common practice for boys born with malformed or missing genitals. I outlined urologists William Reiner and John Gearheart’s follow-up study of a group of children with one such condition, cloacal exstrophy, on page 8 of my essay Nature and Nurture. Money and his supporters dismissed the failure of David Reimer’s reassignment on the grounds that Reimer had been almost 22 months old when the initial reassignment surgery had taken place, allowing a male gender identity to become imprinted on him prior to reassignment. However thirteen of the fourteen gender-reassigned children in Reiner and Gearheart’s study underwent surgery within two weeks of birth. The study was already underway before Money’s theories had been discredited and, following Money’s methodology, all fourteen children were being raised as girls. Despite Money’s claims, the study showed that all fourteen children grew up, like David Reimer, displaying male-typical preferences and behaviour. As a result of this and other studies, gender reassignment is now only used on infants in exceptional circumstances.

Despite the complete discrediting of the John/Joan studies and the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that BOTH nature and nurture are responsible for gender identity, the belief that nurture alone is responsible seems to have become an article of faith for many people and even some psychologists such as Cordelia Fine. Fine’s book Delusions of Gender does a great job of outlining the evidence for the influence of nurture, but presents a deeply prejudiced assessment of the evidence for nature, with Fine attempting to debunk each and every study as she goes. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that while this book was warmly received by reviewers in the mainstream media, it had a cooler reception from her fellow scientists some of whom have commented that Fine’s “critiques of the science are as weak and unfounded as she accuses the science to be”. According to Fine, the field of gender identity is full of scientists misrepresenting evidence in order to support their theories, but her book conveniently neglects to mention John Money, the field’s most notorious offender in this respect. Fine also has a convenient habit of omitting some of the most compelling evidence contradicting her beliefs — my 2012 edition of Delusions of Gender does not contain a single reference to the studies of cloacal exstrophy.

How does this affect the gender gap in children’s literacy?

In Cool not Cute I’ve argued that a lot of the content that boys find particularly appealing in TV films and video games is absent from picture books and that this is one reason many boys abandon books in favour of these other media at an early age. I’ve linked this lack of boy-friendly content to the overwhelming number of female gatekeepers in the world of picture books.

The problem with believing that reading tastes are entirely determined by upbringing is that it gives people an excuse to dismiss this difference in content. The argument goes something like this: It doesn't matter if it’s overwhelmingly one sex deciding what is suitable and appealing for picture books — if we raise both sexes in the same way, they'll develop the same tastes. Then they’ll find the same books equally appealing and the literacy gender gap will disappear.

I hope I’ve shown in this post that, while such an approach might take us some of the way, it won’t enable us to close the gender gap. To do that we need to accept that nature also plays a part in determining children’s preferences. We need to recognise that some preferences are sex-typical.

The critical thing is to produce more picture books that include the types of boy-friendly content that are relatively abundant in films, TV and video games.  Doing so would not reinforce sexual stereotypes providing the books themselves were not marketed as being “for boys only”. Children are quite capable of deciding what sort of content they like for themselves.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Should children’s book awards be more inclusive?

This post was originally published as a guest post for the Inclusive Minds blog
Inclusive Minds is a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children's literature and are committed changing the face of children's books. Click here to visit the Inclusive Minds web site.

“Avoid pigs and witches,” — this advice was given to me a few years ago when I was writing fiction for a schools’ reading scheme. Pigs had to be avoided because they could offend Muslim readers and witches because they could offend Christians. The editor that imparted this advice knew from experience that stories that included them were unlikely to be accepted for publication in a schools’ reading scheme.

Picture book publishers are less sensitive about these elements and three of my most popular picture books are about pigs. When I do a school or library visit, I give the school or library service advance notice of which books I intend to read so they can assess their suitability. I’m rarely asked to change my original selection, but when I am it’s usually on the grounds of religion. On one occasion in 2010 I had to cut my picture book Pigs Might Fly from a visit as the library I was visiting was in a predominately Muslim area and the library service felt that some of the audience might find the book offensive. A couple of years earlier, a predominately Asian (mixed Hindu and Muslim) school I visited in the same city had specifically asked me to read the same book. When I’d mentioned the supposed unsuitability of the book for a Muslim audience to one of the school’s Asian teachers, she’d rolled her eyes and shook her head at the idea that anyone might hold this view.

Although the belief that Muslims find stories about pigs offensive is still evident among publishers, librarians and teachers, in my experience it’s only non-Muslims that subscribe to it. Indeed, as long ago as 2003 the Muslim Council of Britain appealed for an end to the "well-intentioned but misguided" movement to remove books featuring pigs from primary school shelves so as not to offend Muslims.

The wider point here is that the most reliable way to judge a book’s appeal to a certain demographic group is to get a member of that demographic group to judge it. The judgement of a well-informed outsider will generally be less reliable than that of a well-informed insider.

I’ve been making this point a lot recently, but the issue has been gender rather than religion. I believe that picture books tend to reflect female reading tastes more than male ones and that this is deterring many boys from establishing a reading habit. I’ve written at length about this issue at coolnotcute.com and made several suggestions as to how male tastes might be better represented in the picture book world. One suggestion I’ve made is that both sexes be equally represented on the judging panel of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, which also judges the Carnegie Medal for fiction. The Carnegie Greenaway panels have been overwhelmingly female for some time and this year all thirteen judges were women. I’ve suggested that the Carnegie Greenaway should follow the example of grown-up literary awards, such as the Man Booker, by selecting gender-balanced panels from next year onwards.

If we want every child to love books, we have to do our utmost to make sure that every child’s perspective is accurately reflected in them. At the moment I think we’re falling far short of this, particularly in the world of picture books where reading habits are first established. It’s a self-perpetuating problem. If a child does not see their perspective represented in the world of children’s books, they’re less likely to want to enter that world. They’re less likely to read books and less likely to become publishers, booksellers, children’s librarians — or book award judges. And, if they have children of their own, they are less likely to read to them. If we want to break this cycle, we have to make a concerted effort to get under-represented groups directly involved in the world of children’s literature.

While some people have supported my proposal of a gender-balanced Carnegie Greenaway others have strongly opposed it. The judging panel is made up of children’s librarians and one children’s librarian told me that it was hugely insulting to her profession to suggest that a gender-balanced panel would be a better judge of books for children of both sexes than a woman-only panel.

One justification for a woman-only panel is that any differences between male and female reading tastes are entirely a result of upbringing, so the gender of the panellists is irrelevant. I’m not going to address this particular argument here, but my essay Nature and Nurture outlines some of the scientific evidence that contradicts this view.

Other justifications I’ve heard for a woman-only panel are:

  1. The judges are representative of the profession, which is overwhelmingly female.

  2. It tends to be women that put themselves forward to be judges.

  3. The judges are highly trained, experienced professionals who are entirely objective in their judgments.

  4. Gender-balancing the panel would mean that some male judges would be selected on the basis of representation rather than merit.

Appropriately reworded, these same four arguments could be used to justify the under-representation of any demographic group, whether that demographic related to religion, class, race or sexuality. I suspect that some of the people that used these arguments to justify an all-women panel would be less comfortable using them to justify an all-white panel.

These same four arguments have also been used to justify the under-representation of women in the British judiciary. 23% of the judiciary of England and Wales are women compared with 51% of the population. This is the third lowest figure in Europe — the European average is 48% women in the judiciary. High court judges are highly trained, experienced professionals; I suspect that some of them might find the suggestion that a gender-balanced judiciary would be better than a male-dominated one “hugely insulting”. Nevertheless, there is a growing acceptance both within and without the legal profession that the judiciary ought to be more representative of the population as a whole, not just in terms of gender, but in terms of race and other demographics.

Being of a different sex, race, class, religion or sexuality brings a different perspective to judgment that no amount of training can authentically replicate – and this applies to the judges on a children’s book award panel as much as the judges on high court benches.

The Carnegie Greenaway panel’s lack of inclusivity is only a tiny part of this problem, but it’s not insignificant. The Carnegie and Greenaway awards do a great deal to promote children’s literature and thoroughly deserve their prestigious positions. But their prestigious positions are also the reason I’ve chosen to focus on them. If the Carnegie and Greenaway adopted an inclusive approach to panel selection then other children’s awards might follow their example. The winners of many children’s book awards are decided by children’s votes, but the shortlists for these awards are sometimes selected by a panel of adults — if so, that panel needs to be inclusive! And if book awards became more inclusive, other institutions in children’s literature might follow suit.

Book awards are important. When we give a book an award we’re not just recognising that that particular book is exceptional, we’re sending out a message that books are to be cherished and valued. If we want every child to pay attention to that message, we have to ensure that every child’s perspective is accurately and equally reflected in the judging of children’s book awards.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Documentaries on Sex Differences and Boys’ Literacy

It’s clear from some of the responses I’ve had to Cool Not Cute that some people don’t accept that some boy-typical or girl-typical tastes are innate and believe that such differences are entirely a result of upbringing — a view recently popularised by Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender. In my last post I noted the contrast in the way this book was reviewed in the mainstream and the scientific media and on page 8 of Nature and Nurture I highlight one of the instances where Fine misrepresents the scientific evidence to suit her argument.

Fine’s depiction of the science probably needs addressing in a separate post, but in the meantime here’s a selection of documentaries outlining the evidence for innate sex differences and one showing how an awareness of sex differences in children's preferences can help to close the gender gap in children's literacy.

Bang Goes the Theory (BBC 2009)

This short clip from the BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory science magazine programme deals with sex differences in children’s toy preferences. It features both a Child X study, which demonstrates the role that nurture plays in determining children’s tastes, and Melissa Hines and Gerianne Alexander's primate study, which suggests that nature also plays an important role.

The Gender Equality Paradox (NRK 2010)

This Norwegian documentary (in English and Norwegian with English subtitles) features interviews with researchers on both sides of the innate sex differences debate. The “paradox" of the programme’s title is that young people in gender-egalitarian countries such as Norway tend to be more gender-typical in their career choices than young people in less gender-egalitarian countries. Evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell offers an explanation for this paradox in the programme.

It’s worth noting that all of the researchers featured in the programme that accept the evidence for innate sex differences are either scientists or medical practitioners, while none of the researchers dismissing the scientific evidence are scientifically or medically qualified.

Brainsex (BBC 2005)

This documentary examines a range of sex-difference studies including those carried out by psychologist Richard Lippa in collaboration with the BBC. The Lippa/BBC studies are based on the analyses of survey results from 200,000 people across 53 countries and demonstrate consistent sex differences in preferences across all cultures.

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys (BBC 2010)

My argument in Cool Not Cute is about prevention: I believe that boys’ underachievement in literacy can be nipped in the bud if the first books that boys encounter reflect their enthusiasms as much as TV or video games currently do. This 3-part series is about cure. In it choirmaster Gareth Malone attempts to mend the long-broken reading habits of older primary school boys. Malone believes that primary school teaching tends to encourage girls more than boys and sets out to correct this bias by introducing a number of boy-friendly factors including risk, competition and vigorous outdoor activity.

This second episode focusses on reading. It begins with the boys play-fighting a Roman battle with swords and shields, an activity that’s intended to fire-up their enthusiasm to read about the Romans. Acknowledging the importance of appealing book content, Malone takes a group of reluctant boy readers to a bookshop to make their own choice of boy-friendly books to add to the school library. “I don’t want the teachers [all but one of whom are female] to be deciding on all the books,” he explains to them.

This approach is more effective with some boys than others and no doubt some of the girls in the school would also have benefitted from it. However, while Malone’s experiment lacks scientific rigour, it shows how an awareness of innate sex differences can be used to close gender-gaps and promote equality between the sexes. Malone is hardly a swaggering alpha male and it’s clear that his promotion of risk, competition and vigorous outdoor activity is intended to engage boys in schooling so that they will turn into sensitive, well-rounded individuals rather than brutish sexual stereotypes.

The other 2 episodes of the series can also be viewed using the links below:
Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys: Episode 1
Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys: Episode 3

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Is acknowledging sex differences anti-feminist?

It’s clear from some of the responses I’ve seen to my New Statesman post that some of its readers found my argument, which centres on sex differences in reading preferences, objectionable and may well have been surprised to see a left-leaning magazine like the NS giving a platform to what they regarded as anti-feminist views.

I don’t accept that acknowledging sex differences is in any way anti-feminist and it’s a mistake to regard such acknowledgements as reflecting either a right or left-wing political perspective, as an exchange on this week’s BBC’s Question Time programme (starts at 14:17 mins) ably demonstrates.

MP Tessa Jowell (left) and columnist Melanie Phillips (far right) on this week’s Question Time.
I’m not sure who that bloke in the middle is.

While answering a question on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards Report published this week, Labour MP Tessa Jowell gave her backing to the report’s recommendation that trading floors become more gender-balanced by admitting more women. The recommendation reflects the view expressed by Jowell that, “women act differently, more consensually [and are] more risk averse.” The claim that women are more risk averse than men is supported by sceintific studies linking risk aversion with testosterone levels in the brain, which tend to be lower in women. A testosterone monitored go-kart race featured in the BBC’s 2005 documentary on sex differences, Brainsex (starts at 24:53 mins) demonstrates this in an entertaining fashion. Unfortunately, while the male-typical trait of risk-taking may have benefits on the racetrack, its effects on the trading floor have been disastrous for the global economy — hence the Commission’s call for a gender-balanced banking industry.

The Commission’s recommendation is in line with the views of Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, who wrote in a recent article, "I have joked that a “male” culture of reckless financial risk taking was at the heart of the global crisis. Studies back this up. Men trade more often—some say 45 percent more often—and risk taking can be mapped to trading room profits and losses. Mixing the genders can help. Companies with more women on their boards have higher sales, higher returns on equity, and higher profitability.­"

One of the studies Lagarde is referring to was carried out by Cambridge scientist John Coates who suggests that an effective way to “to lower extreme levels of testosterone or increase oestrogenic effects on a trading floor is to hire more older men and more women.”

Right-wing newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips dismissed Jowell’s argument, claiming that both men and women are equally susceptible to the “recklessness” that contributed to the economic collapse.

Phillips’ dismissal of sex differences echo the views of Cordelia Fine, the Australian psychologist and author of Delusions of Gender. Published in 2010, this book claims to show “The Real Science Behind Sex Differences” and supposedly debunks many of the recent studies and experiments that suggest innate differences between the sexes. The book has been widely acclaimed in the mainstream media, receiving favourable reviews in both the left-leaning Guardian and the right-leaning Daily Mail for which Phillips writes a regular column. Fine’s “debunkings” are largely dependant on her claims that the studies were not conducted and/or interpreted in an objective and impartial manner. Some of these claims turned out to be nothing more than assumptions on Fine’s part and were swiftly rebutted in the professional journal The Psychologist. Not surprisingly, the reviews Fine’s book received from her fellow scientists in The Psychologist and other sceintific journals, such as the Biology of Sex Differences, are somewhat different from the ones in the Mail and Guardian.

Regardless of its veracity, Fine’s claim — that there is no such thing as innate sex differences — is embraced by individuals on both sides of the political spectrum and is a card that can be played both ways in arguments concerning inclusivity and gender. By rejecting Jowell’s claim that women are less risk averse than men, Phillips was undermining the credibility of Jowell’s case for including more women in the banking industry. A similar argument – that women will bring nothing new to the table – could be employed against moves to include more women in parliament or the judiciary. If women are going to behave indistinguishably from men in these roles, why should their relative numbers be an issue?

I’ve been hearing a similar argument — that men would have brought nothing new to the table – as a justification for this year’s Greenaway Carnegie women-only judging panel.