Children’s books still feature more male than female protagonists

By Emily Reynolds

There are many fields in which women are underrepresented: in certain areas of education and academia, in politics, and in senior leadership roles. Efforts have been made across sectors to improve this representation, as we’ve particularly covered in the case of STEM.

Unequal representation may start before the workplace or university, however — even before school. Exploring children’s literature, a new study in PLOS One from researchers at Princeton and Emory universities finds an overrepresentation of male protagonists in children’s books, potentially reinforcing damaging societal expectations for those of all genders.

To analyse gender representation in this context, the team gathered data on 3,280 children’s books published between 1960 and 2020: these books included award winners, bestsellers, recommendations given to parents and teachers, and those featured in publishing catalogues. Books were aimed at children aged 0-16, and only those featuring a single identifiable protagonists were included in the set. 

The books that were included were then coded for the gender of the protagonist, the year of publication, the gender of the author, the age of the target audience, the type of character (human or a non-human being like an animal, alien, toy, or vehicle) and the genre of the book (fiction or non-fiction).

The team found that in the 1960s, almost three-quarters of books had male protagonists. This proportion decreased between 1960 and 2020, including over the last two decades — a continuing journey towards equity that spells good news for those seeking more representative gender representation in books. But the team’s analysis showed that even today, there is still underrepresentation of women and girls in children’s books.

This representation was also not uniform. Male authors were much less likely than female authors to feature women or girls as their protagonists; in fact, men were three times more likely to write a male protagonist than a female one. Non-fiction books and books that featured non-human characters were also less likely to feature female protagonists. Books aimed at younger rather than older children also less frequently featured a main character who was a woman or girl: books aimed at infants, for instance, featured male protagonists twice as often as female protagonists.

What the team did not look at, however, were the behaviours associated with the characters they surveyed. Were boy characters less emotional than girls, more interested in science, or more active? Even if the gender of characters is, frequency-wise, equal, what stereotypes or characteristics are being promoted in the content of the books? Similarly, a review could also take place looking at other elements of identity and experience: how non-binary genders, race, class, sexuality and disability are represented in children’s books and with what characteristics.

This is not just a case of representation for its own sake. Research has suggested that non-stereotypical protagonists can make a dent in gender stereotypes in children and even make less gender-stereotypical behaviours seem more acceptable. More diverse books could potentially, therefore, help children of all genders debunk harmful stereotypes and feel more confident in themselves before they even get to school.

– Sixty years of gender representation in children’s books: Conditions associated with overrepresentation of male versus female protagonists

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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