A major analysis of children’s books published over the past 60 years suggests that a bias persists towards male protagonists – despite a general trend towards an increasing proportion of female roles.
PLOS ONE published the results of the analysis, conducted at Emory University, and focused on books that feature a single main character.
The bias towards male protagonists has remained low across the books, at a rate of 1.2 to 1 over the past decade. When broken down by variables and including all years of publication, however, larger differences were observed. Among male authors in general, for example, over the past six decades, the bias towards male protagonists has occurred at a rate of 3 to 1.
“Although the gender bias in children’s books seems to have declined dramatically over the years, we have found that the bias persists,” says Stella Lourenco, Emory associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “We are concerned about what this mismatch communicates to children, especially girls. This is concerning because the disproportionate representation of genres in children’s books can contribute to the persistence of prejudices in society.
The first author of the study is Kennedy Casey, who carried out the work as part of an internship in the Lourenço laboratory while she was an undergraduate student at Princeton University. Kylee Novick, a senior Emory in the Lourenco lab, is co-author of the article.
The statistical analysis included 3,280 books, intended for audiences aged 0 to 16, which could be purchased online in the United States, either in print or digitally. The analysis disaggregated the results by a series of variables, such as target age group, fiction or non-fiction categories, whether the protagonist is human or non-human, and by the gender of the perpetrators.
“We hope that our data can provide information to parents and teachers,” said Lourenco. “We also hope that publishers will see our results and do what they can to encourage a more equitable representation of genres in children’s books.
Lourenço’s research focuses on spatial perception and cognition, including gender and socio-economic differences.
The greatest known gender difference in cognition occurs in visuospatial reasoning, including the ability to mentally rotate objects. On average, men surpass women in this task of imagining multidimensional objects from different points of view.
An important Lourenço laboratory meta-analysis, however, found that men are not born with this benefit. Instead, men gain a slight advantage in mental rotational performance during the early years of formal schooling, and this advantage slowly increases with age, tripling in size by late adolescence. This finding suggests that factors other than intrinsic gender differences in spatial reasoning may be at play.
“One of the goals of my lab is to try to understand the mechanisms underlying such gender differences,” explains Lourenco. “This includes potential environmental influences that can affect your motivation, confidence, and anxiety levels when performing various tasks.”
The researchers decided to explore the genre among the protagonists of children’s books because a major analysis on this subject does not appear to have been carried out since 2000.
The results showed that non-fiction books have a greater degree of gender bias towards men than fiction books. And the male character bias is higher for fiction featuring non-human characters than for fiction with human characters.
Books by male authors have shown a decrease over time in male bias, but only in books intended for young children. Female writers have also decreased the bias of male characters over time, even over-representing female characters in books intended for older children. Female writers continued to favor male lead roles, however, in books with non-human protagonists.
Many factors are probably behind the differences between these variables, says Lourenco. For example, books featuring real historical figures who were scientists would likely show a bias toward male protagonists, since most of the scientists in history have been men.
The current analysis was limited in that it only looked at books that focused on a single main character and did not take into account how the character was portrayed in the narrative.
“As a next step, I hope that we can do precise and rigorous experiments on the books that children actually read and learn what kind of impact the representation of gender in these books can have on children’s attitudes about them. “said Lourenco.
She hopes other researchers will also use the analysis to investigate other outstanding questions about the representation of gender in children’s books, including examining trends in the representation of non-binary protagonists.
“Children’s stories are extremely important for a child’s development,” says Lourenco. “Exposure to books is a form of enculturation, in addition to acquiring language and reading skills. Children look to stories for inspiration and role models.