Children’s books published in the last 60 years was biased towards male protagonists despite an overall trend for an increasing proportion of female leads, according to a new study.
The study conducted at Emory University was published in PLOS ONE. The researchers said that the bias toward male protagonists remained slight in the books overall at a rate of 1.2 to 1 in the last decade. However, when analysed by variables and including all publication years, the researchers said that they found larger gaps. Among male authors overall, across the six decades the bias toward male protagonists occurred at a rate of 3 to 1.
Emory associate professor of psychology and senior author of the study Stella Lourenco noted that gender bias in children’s books still remained though it appeared to have declined significantly over the years. The author also worried about what this mismatch would communicate to children, particularly to girls. It is of much concern as disproportionate gender representation in children’s books may contribute to the persistence of biases in society.
The statistical analysis included 3,280 books, aimed for audiences aged 0 to 16 years, that could be purchased online in the United States. The authors used a range of variables such as the target age group, gender of the authors categories of fiction or non-fiction and whether the protagonist is human or non-human.
Noting that study would provide insights for parents and teachers, Lourenco said that the publishers would see the results and do what they can to encourage more equitable gender representation in children’s books. Lourenco’s research focuses on spatial perception and cognition, including sex and socioeconomic differences.
The largest known gender difference in cognition occurs in visual-spatial reasoning, including the ability to mentally rotate objects. On average, men outperform women on this task of imagining multi-dimensional objects from different points of view.
A major meta-analysis by the Lourenco lab found that males gain a slight advantage in mental-rotation performance during the first years of formal schooling, and this advantage slowly grows with age, tripling in size by the end of adolescence. That finding suggests that other factors besides intrinsic gender differences in spatial reasoning may be at play.
Lourenco said that the focus was to understand the mechanisms that underlie such gender differences, which includes potential environmental influences that may affect your motivation confidence and anxiety levels when performing various tasks.
The researchers found that non-fiction books have a greater degree of gender bios for males then do fiction books. Apart from this, they also found male character bias is higher for fiction featuring non-human characters than for fiction with human characters. The authors also point out that books by male authors showed a decline over time in bias for males but only in books targeted toward younger children. Female authors also declined in male character bias over time, even over representing female characters in books targeted to older children Female authors continued to favor male leads, however, in books with non-human protagonists.
Lourenco says that books featuring actual historical characters who were scientists would likely show a trend toward male protagonists since most scientists in history have been men. The analysis had its limits that it only locked at books focused on a single main character and did not consider how the character was depicted in the normative.