|Science, not sexual politics, holds the answer to closing the literacy gender gap.|
The rise in the number of children reading for pleasure, revealed in the annual Children's and Young People's Reading report earlier this year, is clearly a cause for celebration. However, as The Bookseller noted, the increase relates solely to girls; the number of boys who said that they enjoyed reading remained static, resulting in a widening of the existing gender gap. The report states that "61.6% of girls enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot compared with 47.2% of boys. Conversely, nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all (12.8% vs. 7.3%)."
Studies show that reading for pleasure is closely linked to wider academic achievement and a similar gender gap is seen in children's GCSE results (measured using the standard criteria of percentage of students achieving 5 A*-C grades). This is not a new phenomenon, boys have been underachieving in UK schools for over a generation. While sixteen-year old boys were outperforming sixteen-year-old girls in the 1950s, by the end of the 1960s this gap had closed and in the early 1980s it began to open up in the opposite direction with girls outperforming boys (see graph below). Between 1988 and 1995 the gap increased rapidly and for the last two decades it has remained between 7% and 9%. Last year it reached an 11-year high of 8.8%, this year it stands at 8.4%.
|Gender Gap in O Level and GCSE results 1962-2006|
From Gender and Education: the evidence on pupils in England 2007
While cases such as Malala Yousafzai's highlight the severe educational inequalities still faced by girls in undeveloped countries such as Pakistan, the widely held perception that girls generally receive a second-rate education in comparison to boys is several decades out of date. In a New York Times article earlier this year psychologist Gijsbert Stoet, who studies educational inequality at Glasgow University, commented that “the message you get is that girls around the world don’t get a chance in education, but that is not true for most of the world.” Stoet’s claim is backed up by PISA research which shows that on average, 15-year-old boys score worse than 15-year-old girls across combined achievements in mathematics, reading and science in 70% of PISA tested countries.
Another current aspect of sexual politics that discourages many from tackling boys' underachievement is the widespread belief that gender (as opposed to sex) is entirely the product of nurture, with nature playing no significant role. There are many subscribers to this fundamentalist nurture-only view in the world of children’s literature and literacy and some of them are very vocal in their views. Attempts to address the literacy gender gap by responding to boy-typical preferences are condemned by nurture-only fundamentalists on the grounds that acknowledging such preferences reinforces sexual stereotypes. A nurture-only interpretation of gender is also used to dismiss the need for gender-balance among the female-dominated gatekeeper groups in children’s literature (publishers, librarians, reviewers, awards judges, teachers and book-buyers). The argument goes something like this: It doesn't matter if it’s overwhelmingly one sex determining what's suitable and appealing in children’s literature — 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. Anyone advocating a gender-sensitive approach to tackling the literacy gap is publicly denounced as a sexist (I speak from experience here). So it’s little wonder that few are eager to propose or pursue such solutions.
There is now a large body of scientific evidence suggesting that prenatal hormone levels play an important role in determining sex-typical behaviour and preferences. Studies show that children of both sexes who are subjected to high levels of testosterone in the uterus are more likely to be boy-typical in their play preferences. However, high prenatal testosterone levels are far more common in boys, which is one reason that such play preferences are 'boy-typical'. Nurture also plays an important role in determining play preferences – other studies show that parents are far more likely to encourage a girl to play with a doll than a truck – but the consensus within the scientific community is that children’s play preferences are determined by BOTH nature and nurture.
One of the studies that’s helped to identify the effect of prenatal hormones is the Cambridge Child Development Study conducted by the Neuroscience Centre at Cambridge University. The prenatal testosterone levels of 235 Cambridgeshire children were measured via amniocentesis and the children’s development monitored at regular intervals as the children grew older. The study has been running for over a decade and the children have now grown into teenagers. The results suggest that prenatal testosterone levels are related to a number of sex-typical behavioural characteristics including children’s play preferences. One example is the boy-typical preference for playing with machines and vehicles. Although the study has not collected any data directly relating to media preferences, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that a child who has a preference for playing with machines or vehicles will probably have a similar preference for reading books or watching TV shows about machines or vehicles as well.
One commonly cited sex difference in children’s reading preferences is that boys are generally more interested in non-fiction than girls are. Professor Keith Topping, author of the 2015 What Kids Are Reading report, which analysed the reading habits of over half a million UK schoolchildren, has said that the scarcity of non-fiction books in UK schools “could be disadvantaging boys at the expense of girls” and the report suggests that this scarcity might reflect a preference for fiction over non-fiction among primary school teachers, who are predominantly female. My own survey of children’s book reviews published in national newspapers in 2013 showed a similar imbalance, with fiction outnumbering non-fiction reviews by a staggering 46:1 ratio. The survey also showed that, like primary school teachers, the reviewers selecting the books were predominantly female.
I believe this particular sex difference is not so much to do with fiction versus non fiction as narrative versus non-narrative content. I think most girls will readily read non-fiction content presented in a narrative form (e.g. a biographical novel) and most boys will readily read fictional content presented in a non-narrative form (e.g. a book of cross sections of Star Wars vehicles).
It could be argued that by openly acknowledging a female-typical preference for storytelling, STEM educators are reinforcing a sexual stereotype. However even the most fervent nurture-only-fundamentalists seem reluctant to voice such arguments. I suspect that the reason they're willing to turn a blind eye is that, in this instance, they recognise that exploiting a sex-typical preference is an effective way to close the STEM gender gap and counter the stereotype that science is for boys more than girls.
If we want to close the literacy gender gap and counter the stereotype that reading is for girls more than boys, we need to follow STEM’s example. We need to be more responsive to sex-typical preferences. We need to be more proactive about getting male gatekeepers into all areas of children’s literature. We need to start valuing hard science over sexual politics. And we need to stop shouting “SEXIST!” every time someone suggests that, ON AVERAGE, different sexes might have different preferences.