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15 Feb 2022 • 4 minute read

Kids' books missing the mark on gender

New research from Edith Cowan University has revealed childrens' books are perpetuating outdated stereotypes of gender roles including boys playing sport, doing physical work and girls as passive onlookers.

Breaking down gender barriers

A study of eight long day care centres in Australia and the USA found around 90 per cent of frequently read books are not inclusive of diverse characters and are largely told from a white, male perspective.

Lead researcher Dr Helen Adam from Edith Cowan University’s School of Education said the kind of books read to young children sends a powerful message that influences childrens’ identity by either perpetuating gender stereotypes or breaking down gender barriers.

Purely and simply this research shows there’s a lack of representation of boys and girls in non-traditional gender roles in these books.

Dr Adam said the representation of gender diverse children and families was completely absent in the books studied, as well as the representation of characters from minority ethnic backgrounds.

“This can contribute to children from these families and backgrounds feeling excluded or marginalised,” she said.

Outdated classics

Dr Adam said some of her previous research has shown that adults will often choose books they loved themselves as children, and this contributes to children being exposed to outdated viewpoints of masculinity and femininity as well as gender roles.

“At the time of this study, lots of the centres had mainly older books, some first published in the 1950s or 60s, when society’s views on these topics was very different to today,” she said.

It is great to see that more inclusive childrens’ literature is starting to be published now.

“However, although books are becoming more diverse with an increased balance between leading female and male characters, many of the roles played by these characters still reflect only traditional gender roles and expectations. This makes it challenging for adults when choosing empowering books to share with children.”

Researchers stressed that some books reinforcing more traditional gender roles were often considered high quality books with strong storylines and good use of language and literary devices, portraying other positive messages for children.

In that case, it was the role of educators to use texts to help young children understand how stereotypes are created and maintained in books and that they were not representative of all situations.

How the study broke down books

The research team considered a range of story characteristics relating to gender and the roles, attitudes and jobs of characters and stories to separate books into categories that were stereotypical, gender restrictive, sensitive to gender or gender neutral.

The books in four long day care centres in Western Australia were compared with those in similar centres in the United States.

For example, one of the books analysed, Harry the Dirty Dog, shows males outnumbering females by more than 3:1, with males portrayed in multiple occupations while females appearing in passive, domestic and nurturing roles.

Recent publications

Some recently published books that challenge traditional notions of gender include:

  • My Shadow is Pink by Scott Stuart
  • Do you want to play trucks? by Ann Stott
  • Who’s your real mum? by Bernadette Green
  • Me and my boots by Penny Harrison
  • I want to be a superhero by Breanna Humes

Further reading

To explore more of this subject, read these articles authored or co-authored by Dr Adam.

Buying picture books as Christmas presents? These stories with diverse characters can help kids develop empathy

Research shows reading books with diverse characters and story-lines helps children develop a greater understanding and appreciation of people different to themselves.

Children’s books must be diverse, or kids will grow up believing white is superior

Evidence shows sharing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories helps break down stereotypes and prejudice. But these stories are absent from the majority of classroom literature.

Bias starts early – most books in childcare centres have white, middle-class heroes

The promotion of white middle-class ideas and lifestyles in children’s books risks alienating children from minority groups. It could also give white middle-class children a sense of superiority.

Five tips to make school bookshelves more diverse and five books to get you started

Children from minority groups rarely see themselves reflected in the books they read. This can negatively impact their sense of identity and their literacy levels.

Children’s picture books still overwhelmingly white, middle-class & heteronormative

We have a long way to go before we realise the importance and potential of diverse books to build a more socially just future for all children.

’Gender equity in early childhood picture books: a cross-cultural study of frequently read picture books in early childhood classrooms in Australia and the United States’ was published in The Australian Educational Researcher.