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This week has seen National Careers Week, World Book Day, and today International Women’s Day.

All three have highlighted important issues (not least how to whip up a costume in no time). But in the middle of these three issues is a ‘sweet spot’: the representation of gender in children’s books and how this might affect the types of careers that young people are aware of and aspire to be in.

How careers aspirations are shaped by characters

Those of us responsible for children have choices about how they are invited to investigate and discover the world around them.

From the very beginning you are led down the well-trodden, pre-determined routes that boys are exposed to blue, dinosaurs, transport, animals, and rockets, while girls can expect, pink, princesses, fairies, unicorns, and ponies.

How does this formula influence career aspirations?

In 2017, the Drawing the Future report revealed that by the age of 7 children’s aspirations appear to be shaped by gender-related stereotypes about who does certain jobs: boys aspire for traditionally male dominated professions and girls show a greater interest in nurturing and caring related roles than boys.

There has been no change in this perpetuating status quo. The influence of socio-economic background should not be ignored either. Children from less well-off families will imagine themselves in jobs that are not as well paid as other options (with the reverse being true).

Gender stereotypes in children’s books

This video from the Drawing the Future team speaks volumes.

For those not watching here’s the spoiler: in 66 drawings of fire-fighters, surgeons, and pilots 61 were of men and 5 were of women.

A study from Dr Susan Wilbraham and Elizabeth Caldwell at the Universities of Cumbria and Hudderfield respectively, looked at depiction of gender in children’s science books. They found images of males as scientists were used three times more often than images of female scientists, reinforcing the idea that science is a man’s pursuit. 

They go on to assert the relevance and impact of imagery on the way we think

“A multi-billion pound advertising industry…relies on persuasion…by exemplifying appealing lifestyles and using imagery depicting the rewards of status or respect. In the same way, children’s books advertise career choices, and their imagery communicates what it means for men and women to be associated with these occupations. Women need to be present in children’s science books to demonstrate that all science subjects are fulfilling for girls.”

It is telling that only 20% of A-Level Physics students are girls and parents too have influence over attitudes to maths and science, often based on their own experiences.

He or She? Male and female characters in children’s books

The casually used pronoun plays a significant role when it comes to the free choice of whether a person or animal is a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. Research shows that mums reading a book will refer to gender neutral characters as male, serving to support the under-representation of female characters generally.

I recently found myself questioning whether to give a book with a girly title and a female main character to a boy as a birthday gift, even though the book was about football and fun to read (Spinderella was the book in question, and in the end I did). A good reminder that the issue is just as much about what boys are exposed to as girls.

In an analysis of the top 100 selling children’s picture books in 2017 by The Observer and Neilsen, it was found that male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles, often in stereotypically masculine activities, and are given far more speaking parts than females.

What’s more, the overall number of female characters is fewer than that of their male counterparts, with three male characters present in each story for every two females. 

Then there’s the 60% of characters who are non-human, instead being animals, birds, crayons, vegetables and skeletons, of which the gender pronoun of choice was overwhelmingly male at 73%.

The other dimension to characterisation is that “males were more typically embodied as powerful, wild and potentially dangerous beasts such as dragons, bears and tigers, while females tended to anthropomorphise smaller and more vulnerable creatures such as birds, cats and insects” – or as a commentator put it, ‘prey’.

This can be further compounded by the ‘pale, male and stale’ canon of texts that form the bedrock of English exam assessment. As girls’ sense of self within wider society is continuing to develop through the teenage years, consider the representations of women that are held up as having educational value in such texts as Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men and Macbeth.

Who is being represented in children’s literature?

The Reflecting Realities report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education raises bigger questions of authorship and voice; of who is doing the writing, who is being represented, and what is being done and to whom.

Their research revealed the extent of the representation of black and minority ethnic characters, whereby only 4% of children’s books published in the UK in 2017 featured BME characters.

There is further interesting analysis on the roles played by the BME characters – whether central to the plot (or not) and the nature of the narrative surrounding the BME character, whether this is written to stereotype or reflective of a historical context, or the friend.  The issue of representation is really illustrated when you consider that 32% of school aged young people are from BME backgrounds.

When it comes to what is available in schools, according to UNESCO, textbooks and school materials may reinforce stereotypes about the roles of men and women. They say that “few instruments shape children’s and young people’s minds more powerfully than the teaching and learning materials used in schools. Textbooks convey not only knowledge but also social values and political identities, and an understanding of history and the world”.

I’m recalling a Twitter thread recently discussing the use in a GCSE textbook of an illustration featuring a pregnant woman, baby in her womb and with pubic hair shaped in a ‘Brazilian’ and the outrage this provoked on conventions.

The opportunity for schools to improve gender balance

In the UK then, it is really encouraging to see the arrival of Gender Action Schools, an organisation who are shining a spotlight on the role of schools in presenting different views of the world and challenging gender stereotypes.

And in a visit to a school recently, it was inspiring to see their library curated on the theme of diversity, visually offering up books featuring black characters and the achievements of women by placing these books front and centre.

Schools have a great opportunity to open young minds to the types of work available to them, to imagine the doing, the wearing and the what you might be holding associated with different jobs and from the earliest of ages.

Gender and its relationship to career aspiration is not the only challenge schools can face when you start to unpack it. Nicola Beech, Principal, Ipsley CE RSA Academy reflects:

‘As a school we take proactive steps to address the imbalance through our choice of books that support the curriculum, library stock and the visual imagery used within the learning environment. However, the emphasis is increasingly one of counteracting the highly mediated images girls are exposed to online, then reinforcing wider positive representations.’

We should absolutely widen the conceptions of what girls and boys should be, to repeat the message from Wilbraham and Caldwell: that there is a crucial role for parents, teachers and librarians – along with authors, illustrators and publishers – to have a gender lens on books and provide balance accordingly. 

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