Books in primary school reading schemes still, in a stereotyped way, represent mothers as homemakers, much as they did four decades ago, according to a new study.
Christine Skelton, a professor at the University of Birmingham's School of Education, noted that in 1970s reading schemes male characters appeared more often than their female counterparts and participated in a significantly broader range of activities. Different language was also used to describe the sexes - for example, boys "laughed", while girls "giggled".
To find out whether anything has changed since that time, Professor Skelton analysed 100 reading-scheme books intended for five-year-old pupils. The fictional family is at the core of the reading scheme, so all of the 100 books in the study included the name of a character in their titles.
Of these 100 titles, 75 referred to a male character and 22 to a female character. "At first sight, this disparity ... is shocking," Professor Skelton says. A similar study, conducted in 1974, found that 71 of 179 books had heroes, while only 35 had heroines.
Professor Skelton then went on to look more closely at the depiction of mothers in the stories. In the 1970s, academics described such fictional mothers as "Mummies in frilly aprons, who take tea on the lawns in front of their detached houses" and "limited, colourless, mindless" creatures. These mothers were never shown taking part in sporting activities or teaching their children to build things.
"We might expect that the changes in women's position in Western societies would be reflected in reading schemes ... published from the 1990s onwards," Professor Skelton says. However, mothers in contemporary reading-scheme books are still relatively passive. While fathers "see", "run", "chase" and "go", mothers "help" or are "cross" and "disappointed".
In Poor Old Mum!, the (non-speaking) title character attends a school sports day with her family. All other family members - including Dad - win prizes. Mum enters a race, but the sole of one of her trainers comes loose and she trips, falls and loses. ("It may be that the trainers are worn out because of frequent use or have become rotten through lack of use," says Professor Skelton. "If it is because of regular usage, then there is the question of why they have not been replaced, if she is a keen sportswoman.")
This mother's efforts to break out from the inactive stereotype are foiled and she is quickly pulled back in line. "Her desire in terms of her (masculine) sportiness, her competitiveness and ambition to win are subsumed by her family's needs and expectations that her primary value is as wife and mother," Professor Skelton says. Her compensation is a badge reading "Best Mum", a card, a kiss and a new pair of trainers.
Instead of running and winning, reading-scheme mothers shop for and prepare food, and look after children. Mum is the first person to worry about an accident, to get cross when a mess is made and to appear at a invalid's bedside.
The majority of mums are middle-class and white. Only one mother in the sample is single and working-class. She lives in a flat, rather than a house, with little evidence of books, paintings or up-to-date electronic equipment. She also wears a short skirt rather than the trousers or below-the-knee skirts seen on middle-class mothers.
Mums are also, definitely, heterosexual: a mother is depicted without a male partner in only one book. Even when the father is not physically present, as in one story, an anniversary card in the background reassures the reader of his existence.
"Family members, and mothers in particular, are the ones children most look up to and want to emulate," Professor Skelton says. "While there would be nothing to be gained by a reading-scheme mum who worked long hours in the City and had precious little time with their children, more versatile mums could be introduced."
Christine Skelton, University of Birmingham.
Skelton, C. Gender, "Race" and Social Class in School Reading Schemes. A paper given to the 2011 British Educational Research Association Conference
How to respond
Dealing with the conventional depictions of gender in reading schemes is not an easy task for teachers, Professor Skelton says.
She points out that young children have often internalised a very conservative notion of gender and, therefore, "publishers are right not to depict reading-scheme mums in ways that significantly transgress gender boundaries, if ... children are not going to accept them".
But teachers should raise questions with pupils. "This, of course, places responsibility for challenging these stereotypical images ... with the teacher, at a time when they are under constant surveillance," Professor Skelton says. "The answer has to be that the writers and publishers of reading schemes bring their characters and storylines into the 21st century."