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

I believe that the scarcity of male gatekeepers in the picture book industry means that its output reflects boys’ tastes less than girls’ and that this lack of gender-balance is exacerbating the gender gap in children's reading abilities.

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

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cool not cute: what boys really want from picture books

This two-part essay contains my main argument.

Part 1: The Uneven Playing Field argues that the lack of gender-balance among publishers, teachers, librarians and picture-book-buyers is making picture books more appealing to girls than boys.

Part 2: The Missing Ingredients lists some of the ingredients with boy-typical appeal that are missing from most picture books and suggests ways to gender-balance picture book appeal.

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 that BOTH nature and nurture are responsible for sex differences in children's 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


These three essays were revised and updated in February 2015. You can read a blog post outlining the revisions and the reasons for them here.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Why we have to start valuing hard science over sexual politics if we want to tackle the literacy gender gap

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.

"Many people take a partizan, pro-female approach to gender equality. For such people, being pro-boy is often equated with being anti-girl"
The New York Times article quotes Doctor Stoet as being surprised by “the lack of eagerness to solve the problems that boys face.” I think this lack of eagerness is rooted in sexual politics. As I commented in my last post, many people take a partizan, pro-female approach to gender equality. For such people, being pro-boy is often equated with being anti-girl and attempting to tackle inequalities that favour women over men is regarded as inappropriate while there are still so many inequalities that favour men over women. For those with a less partizan approach to equality, this is a false dichotomy; inequality should be tackled wherever it occurs, no matter which group it disadvantages. It's not a zero-sum game; we can and should be both pro-girl and pro-boy.

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.

"Taking a 'gender-sensitive approach' does NOT mean gender branding"
I should stress that taking a "gender-sensitive approach" does NOT mean gender branding. There is good evidence to suggest that gender is not binary and everyday experience tells us that an individual child’s behaviour and preferences are not simply dictated by whether or not they possess a Y chromosome. This is one reason why gender-branded books are a bad idea. However there is also good evidence to suggest that biological factors play an important role in determining the sex-typical behaviour evident in the population as a whole.  A gender-sensitive response does not require young readers to be pigeon-holed according to their sex; publishers can still produce books that accurately reflect boy-typical reading preferences without deterring potential female readers by marketing these books as being “for boys”.

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 role prenatal hormones play in determining sex-typical preferences 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.

"Only about 15% of the public accept that brain gender is a product of both nature and nurture"
Arguably the UK’s leading authorities on gender development are Melissa Hines, Director of Cambridge University’s Hormones and Behaviour Research Lab and Simon Baron-Cohen, the Director of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre. You can watch Professors Hines and Baron-Cohen outline some of the evidence relating to children’s play preferences at a panel event in the video below. The event was organised by the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation committed to promoting the public understanding of science, and brain gender is certainly an area that would benefit hugely from better public understanding. Towards the end of the discussion Professor Hines mentions that only about 15% of the public accept the that brain gender is a product of both nature and nurture, with the majority subscribing to either a nurture-only or nature-only view.


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).

"The female-typical preference for narrative is currently being exploited to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects"
The female-typical preference for narrative is currently being exploited to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The introduction of more storytelling into science in the form of fiction or biography has proved to be an effective tool in engaging girls in these traditionally male-dominated fields. It’s now recognised that, while a straightforward outlining of facts and theory in STEM subjects may work well for boys, girls generally respond better to a narrative approach. So stories that illustrate how individual people are responsible for or benefit from STEM are helping to make STEM subjects seem more relevant and appealing to girls.

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.


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