|Gender equality should not be a one way street|
I’m aware that some people regard some of the arguments I’ve made on this blog as being anti-feminist. It’s a view I first addressed on this blog back in 2013 in relation to the belief that acknowledging innate sex differences in behaviour was anti-feminist.
The actor Emma Watson recently commented that, "If you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist." Whether you accept this or not comes down to how you define feminism. My dictionary defines it as “the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” I support the equality of the sexes and recognise that in most contexts this means promoting women’s rights. Nevertheless, when I’m asked if I’m a feminist, I feel obliged to qualify my answer by saying that I’m an egalitarian feminist, because I think the principal of equality should override the principal of promoting women’s rights. Over last couple of years I’ve come up against several self-professed “feminists” who seem to interpret feminism as simply meaning promoting women’s rights regardless of the context. This group could be characterised as partisan feminists. When the actor and human rights campaigner Susan Sarandon objected to being described as a feminist on the basis that it was an “old-fashioned”, “alienating” word, I suspect that she had this narrower, partisan interpretation of feminism in mind.
While a pro-female approach to gender equality is clearly appropriate for most contexts, I think children’s literature is one context where we need to recognise that we have to redress the balance in the opposite direction if we want children’s books to appeal equally to both sexes. Gender equality should not be a one way street!
Publishing journalist and Associate Editor of The Bookseller Porter Anderson agrees. Addressing the lack of gender balance in the recent shortlists for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in a Thought Catalog article earlier this year, he wrote:
What if the gender imbalance in the Waterstones shortlist released today gave us 15 books by men and only three by women?
Would we hear any concerns voiced then? Well, of course we would. And rightly so.
Several points are important in the dialog that’s building in urgency among thoughtful, earnest members of the readership and of the publishing community about the trend highlighted by the Waterstones shortlist.
In a nutshell, it’s this: What if we have confused the need for “gender balance” in our books culture with support for women over men?
“Balance,” after all, means balance. And while we might never achieve perfect equilibrium in almost any aspect of life or work, there seems to be a line of thinking in parts of the publishing industry today that interprets “balance” to mean support and applause for women and girls.Anderson goes on to say this about the current children’s literature buzzword “diversity”:
Even the term “diversity” itself, when it comes to gender issues, tends to be confused with an automatic reference to female advancement. These terms are so readily weighted, often without our thinking about it. However much I and many others despise the stupid oppression of women by men for such an unspeakably large part of history, can moving forward by creating the opposing imbalance possibly be the answer? Of course not.
Effects such as those seen in the Waterstones shortlist need not be “somebody’s fault.” Blame is not an issue here. I don’t think that anyone gets up in the morning in books publishing today and says to him or herself, “Here goes another great day of suppressing books by and for guys and promoting books by and for women.”
But however unintended such constructs may be, their outcomes may be exacerbating a serious and deepening challenge: our men and boys aren’t reading as much as our women and girls.As I've highlighted elsewhere, this gender imbalance extends well beyond children’s publishers and booksellers into other important gatekeeper groups such as teachers and children’s librarians. Mary Curnock Cook, chief of UCAS the UK Universities admissions service, has suggested that the lack of male teachers may be a result of a one way attitude to gender balance in the UK education system. Her views were quoted in an article in Times Higher Education last year:
Action over gender imbalances at university was “about women who are disadvantaged compared with men”, she said. “Why wouldn’t you set out to make it more socially acceptable for young men to go into nursing and teaching?” she asked.
“Maybe some of the issues we’ve got with male education would be improved by having more male primary and secondary teachers,” Ms Curnock Cook said. She added that boys being taught English literature in classes with a majority of girls and by female teachers “doesn’t always make for young men who love English literature”. “I don’t see anything happening in education policy to tackle this issue,” she said
She made the broader point that there was a now a “huge sociological and widening participation issue” because women were so much more likely to apply to higher education than men.When I set up this blog, I’d anticipated that some people would object to some of the solutions I’d suggested for addressing the lack of gender balance among publishers, teachers, librarians and picture-book-buyers. I hadn’t anticipated that quite so many people would reject the premise that this lack of gender balance was an issue that was worth addressing. I think this is a partisan response and I suspect that those same people would react very differently if women rather than men were being underrepresented.
Unless we’re prepared to recognise that gender balance ought to be as important to children’s literature as it is to areas such as science and engineering, we have little hope of closing the literacy gender gap. We have to start being proactive about engaging men in children’s literature in the same way that we are already proactive about engaging women in science and engineering. Sitting back and claiming that 'we have to accept that they’re just not as interested as the other sex are' is no excuse. We have to go out of our way to get them interested!