The benefits for children of reading, being read to and having access to a well-stocked library are well documented.
What children read impacts on how they see themselves and those around them. Yet within school and library shelves, gender stereotypes all too often prevail – and this needs to change.
As a medium, books are an engaging way for children to understand how we express our cultural definition of gender "norms".
There is a wealth of research to show that gender-normative attitudes, behaviours and their accompanying stereotypes dominate children’s media and popular culture.
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For example, research psychologist Dr Lauren Spinner has noted: “In a review of 200 children’s books published since 2001, females were shown to be depicted in gender stereotypic ways by residing in home settings, exhibiting nurturing behaviour, and occupying typically feminine job roles, while males have frequently been found engaging in adventurous behaviour, outdoor activities and fixing mechanical objects, and in picture books found in preschool classrooms, males have been shown to be overrepresented.”
Gender stereotypes in early years
Studies have also shown that children can distinguish between men and women by the age of nine to 12 months, and that gender stereotypes and behaviours are evident by the age of 3.
Now consider the impact that your first taste of learning and education – books – will have on this. The Scottish government recently released findings around gendered differences and their impact on early years that underline how crucial these are to early idea-forming.
“The gender stereotyping that children encounter in their early years appears to have significant knock-on effects both during childhood and later in life. It affects children’s beliefs and behaviour from a young age, and later in life it can contribute to gendered differences in key areas of life, including education and careers as well as the perpetuation and experience of violence.”
Lynsey Pollard, founder of Little Box of Books, says this is a bad state of affairs: “If children are soaking up everything around them, making sense of relationships, understanding boundaries, learning from their adult role models and then we repeatedly take them inside stories where they see a replica of the world, but one without strong women or, in some cases, any women at all, it starts to look normal to them. The more books they read like that, the more it starts to stick.”
The Marie Kondo effect
So what should schools do about this? You could start by Marie Kondo-ing your bookshelves.
Put all the books in a big heap and only keep those that include positive male and female role models, inspiring narratives and all things that support inclusion on your shelves. Remember that early readers love nature, dinosaurs, dressing up and superheroes – and many have parents that love these types of characters, too, despite their genders, so reflect that.
Reflect on the timeline of child development and how you can support inclusivity, too.
Review offerings both from the viewpoint of including clever and caring men, and risk-taking Stem women – and act on it. Aim for a 50:50 inclusion of genders for historical and scientific figures, encourage boys to see caring and academic male role models and do not limit their opportunities based on their genders.
Show them aspirational images to help, too. Research by Kidzania helps to illustrate why this is important. If you need a shopping list, have a look at The GEC Best Books List 2019. In short, be a hero for gender equality. To sort out your curriculum design, take a look at this checklist by Emma Turner and myself.
Headteacher Caroline Ash says her school did just this to ensure it offered a rich array of texts to its pupils. “In an attempt to break the cycle of domestic violence, toxic masculinity and the gender imbalance that dominates our community, we’ve transformed our library and texts throughout the curriculum," she says.
The secondary results for English, albeit since the curriculum changes, have seen boys improving but they are still outperformed by the girls.
There are widening gender gaps with subject take-up too, which impacts on the employment sector, and therefore society as a whole. So, how does this relate to books?
Well, one example: the higher comparative average reading age that girls exhibit has been suggested as one reason why the Stem sector is flooded with men and few women, as this recent study shows. We need to get more girls seeing themselves as having a future in Stem careers – through textbooks, subject-specific literature and reading for pleasure, rather than their love of reading reinforcing stereotypes.
For boys? We just need to get them reading more. Gaps for literacy and writing and essentially everything based on formalised "learning" (that is another story) seems to point to boys failing - and has done for 60 years.
Boy’s Don’t Try?, by Mark Roberts and Matt Pinkett, explores how gender bias towards boys equates to a huge failing from our side as teachers. When it comes to books and literacy, we often end up focusing on masculine stereotypes.
Mr Roberts points out how Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julliet offers a wealth of opportunities to “talk to boys” about “the feelings of the eponymous love-struck male” rather trying to appeal to simplistic old-fashioned and gender-based norms by creating lessons on weapons and sword fights. Yet how often do teachers fall back on the latter?
It’s worth, therefore, considering how you engage boys and girls with the reading matter:
- How reading is presented to them - and how they view it.
- Is reading seen as a punishment or pleasure?
- Do the books relate to them?
- Are the books aspirational or do they reinforce stereotypes?
- How you can be more inclusive when describing a characters’ actions, speech, appearance, interests WITHOUT bringing in gender.
There’s a lot to take on board here but if we want to give all young people a love of reading and create a fairer and more equitable society, ensuring the bookshelves our children encounter from their first school days reflect this could have a huge impact.