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Children's books still show bias toward male protagonists, analysis finds

"Children's stories are incredibly important to a child's development," says Stella Lourenco, Emory associate professor of psychology and senior author of the study.

A major analysis of children’s books published during the last 60 years suggests that a bias persists toward male protagonists — despite an overall trend for an increasing proportion of female leads.

PLOS ONE published the results of the analysis, conducted at Emory University, and focused on books that feature a single main character. 

The bias toward male protagonists remained slight in the books overall, at a rate of 1.2 to 1 in the last decade. When broken down by variables and including all publication years, however, some larger gaps were seen. Among male authors overall, for instance, across the six decades the bias toward male protagonists occurred at a rate of 3 to 1. 

“While gender bias in children’s books appears to have declined significantly over the years, we found that bias remains,” says Stella Lourenco, Emory associate professor of psychology and senior author of the study. “We worry about what this mismatch communicates to children, particularly to girls. It’s concerning because disproportionate gender representation in children’s books may contribute to the persistence of biases in society.” 

First author of the study is Kennedy Casey, who did the work through an internship in the Lourenco lab while she was an undergraduate at Princeton University. Kylee Novick, an Emory senior in the Lourenco lab, is co-author of the paper. 

The statistical analysis included 3,280 books, aimed for audiences aged 0 to 16 years, that could be purchased online in the United States, either as hard copies or digitally. The analysis broke down the results by a range of variables, such as the target age group, categories of fiction or non-fiction, whether the protagonist is human or non-human, and by the gender of the authors. 

“We hope our data can provide insights for parents and teachers,” Lourenco says. “We also hope that publishers see our 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, however, found that men are not born with this advantage. Instead, 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. 

“One of the focuses of my lab is trying to understand the mechanisms that underlie such gender differences,” Lourenco says. “That includes potential environmental influences that may affect your motivation, confidence and anxiety levels when you’re performing various tasks.”

The researchers decided to explore gender in protagonists of children’s books because a major analysis on that topic did not appear to have been conducted since 2000. 

The results showed that non-fiction books have a greater degree of gender bias for males than do fiction books. And male character bias is higher for fiction featuring non-human characters than for fiction with human characters. 

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 overrepresenting female characters in books targeted to older children. Female authors continued to favor male leads, however, in books with non-human protagonists. 

Many factors are likely driving the differences in these variables, Lourenco says. For instance, books featuring actual historical characters who were scientists would likely show a bias toward male protagonists, since most scientists in history have been men. 

The current analysis was limited in that it only looked at books focused on a single main character, and it did not consider how the character was depicted in the narrative. 

“As a next step, I hope we can do precise, rigorous experiments on what books children are actually reading and learn what kind of impact the gender representation in those books may have on the children’s attitudes about themselves,” Lourenco says. 

She hopes other researchers will also build off the analysis to study other remaining questions in gender representation in children’s books, including examining trends in the representation of non-binary protagonists. 

“Children’s stories are incredibly important to a child’s development,” Lourenco says. “Exposure to books is a form of enculturation, in addition to building language and reading skills. Children look to stories for inspiration and for role models.”

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