I’ve set up this blog because I want to start a debate about gender bias in picture books.

I believe that the scarcity of male gatekeepers in the picture book industry means that its output reflects boys’ tastes less than girls’ and that this lack of gender-balance is exacerbating the gender gap in children's reading abilities.

My argument, based on my experience as both an author and a parent, is set out in the three essays below.

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cool not cute: what boys really want from picture books

This two-part essay contains my main argument.

Part 1: The Uneven Playing Field argues that the lack of gender-balance among publishers, teachers, librarians and picture-book-buyers is making picture books more appealing to girls than boys.

Part 2: The Missing Ingredients lists some of the ingredients with boy-typical appeal that are missing from most picture books and suggests ways to gender-balance picture book appeal.

Click here to view/download a pdf of COOL not CUTE Click here to view/download an EXECUTIVE SUMMARY of the essay

nature and nurture: boys will be boys

This essay looks at some of the scientific evidence that suggests that BOTH nature and nurture are responsible for sex differences in children's preferences.

Click here to view/download a pdf of NATURE and NURTURE

fighters and fashionistas: the spectre of stereotyping

This essay addresses concerns about gender stereotyping which may arise from the assertion that some preferences are boy or girl-typical.

Click here to view/download a pdf of FIGHTERS and FASHIONISTAS

These three essays were revised and updated in February 2015. You can read a blog post outlining the revisions and the reasons for them here.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Is acknowledging sex differences anti-feminist?

Tessa Jowell (left) and Melanie Phillips (far right) discuss gender balance in the banking industry
on this week's Question Time.

It’s clear from some of the responses I’ve seen to my New Statesman post that some of its readers found my argument, which centres on sex differences in reading preferences, objectionable and may well have been surprised to see a left-leaning magazine like the NS giving a platform to what they regarded as anti-feminist views.

I don’t accept that acknowledging sex differences is in any way anti-feminist and it’s a mistake to regard such acknowledgements as reflecting either a right or left-wing political perspective, as an exchange on this week’s BBC’s Question Time programme (starts at 14:17 mins) ably demonstrates.

While answering a question on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards Report published this week, Labour MP Tessa Jowell gave her backing to the report’s recommendation that trading floors become more gender-balanced by admitting more women. The recommendation reflects the view expressed by Jowell that, “women act differently, more consensually [and are] more risk averse.” The claim that women are more risk averse than men is supported by sceintific studies linking risk aversion with testosterone levels in the brain, which tend to be lower in women. A testosterone monitored go-kart race featured in the BBC’s 2005 documentary on sex differences, Brainsex (starts at 24:53 mins) demonstrates this in an entertaining fashion. Unfortunately, while the male-typical trait of risk-taking may have benefits on the racetrack, its effects on the trading floor have been disastrous for the global economy — hence the Commission’s call for a gender-balanced banking industry.

The Commission’s recommendation is in line with the views of Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, who wrote in a recent article, "I have joked that a “male” culture of reckless financial risk taking was at the heart of the global crisis. Studies back this up. Men trade more often—some say 45 percent more often—and risk taking can be mapped to trading room profits and losses. Mixing the genders can help. Companies with more women on their boards have higher sales, higher returns on equity, and higher profitability.­"

One of the studies Lagarde is referring to was carried out by Cambridge scientist John Coates who suggests that an effective way to “to lower extreme levels of testosterone or increase oestrogenic effects on a trading floor is to hire more older men and more women.”

Right-wing newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips dismissed Jowell’s argument, claiming that both men and women are equally susceptible to the “recklessness” that contributed to the economic collapse.

Phillips’ dismissal of sex differences echo the views of Cordelia Fine, the Australian psychologist and author of Delusions of Gender. Published in 2010, this book claims to show “The Real Science Behind Sex Differences” and supposedly debunks many of the recent studies and experiments that suggest innate differences between the sexes. The book has been widely acclaimed in the mainstream media, receiving favourable reviews in both the left-leaning Guardian and the right-leaning Daily Mail for which Phillips writes a regular column. Fine’s “debunkings” are largely dependant on her claims that the studies were not conducted and/or interpreted in an objective and impartial manner. Some of these claims turned out to be no more than ill-founded assumptions made by Fine and were swiftly rebutted in the professional journal The Psychologist. Not surprisingly, the reviews Fine’s book received from her fellow scientists in The Psychologist and other sceintific journals, such as the Biology of Sex Differences, are somewhat different from the ones in the Mail and Guardian.

Regardless of its veracity, Fine’s claim — that there is no such thing as innate sex differences — is embraced by individuals on both sides of the political spectrum and is a card that can be played both ways in arguments concerning inclusivity and gender. By rejecting Jowell’s claim that women are less risk averse than men, Phillips was undermining the credibility of Jowell’s case for including more women in the banking industry. A similar argument – that women will bring nothing new to the table – could be employed against moves to include more women in parliament or the judiciary. If women are going to behave indistinguishably from men in these roles, why should their relative numbers be an issue?

I’ve been hearing a similar argument — that men would have brought nothing new to the table – as a justification for this year’s Greenaway Carnegie women-only judging panel.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Gender-balanced Greenaway and Carnegie Update

My last post was in response to this year’s selection of a women-only Greenaway and Carnegie judging panel and included an email that I’d written to awards organisers urging them to adopt a gender-balanced panel for future awards.

At the end of the post I said that if anything came of it, I’d post an update on this blog.

Well, I’ve yet to receive a response form the awards organisers. I'd cc’d the email to CILIP’s Chief Executive and I did receive a prompt response from CILIP’s Campaign Manager, who told me that he’d forwarded my email to the Co-ordinator and the Chair of awards’ working party who where best placed to answer the “interesting points” I’d raised. He made it clear that they were very busy people who ran the awards on a voluntary basis and so they might take some time to get back to me. I thought I ought to give the organisers the opportunity to respond, which is why I stopped tweeting and blogging about the issue.

After six weeks of waiting I realised that the organisers probably weren’t going to respond to me, so I wrote to the media asking if they would help me raise awareness of the issue. The New Statesman offered me a guest post on their blog, which is reproduced below.

In the post I claim that “the Greenaway and Carnegie panels have for some time been overwhelmingly female.” I verified this by looking at the last few years’ judging panels as listed (or previously listed) on the “Meet the Judges” page of the Greenaway and Carnegie web site. Here’s a table showing what I found.

And here’s the post from the New Statesman blog.

There is a problem with boys and books — they don’t seem to want to read them as much as girls do. As a result, boys’ average reading abilities are lagging behind that of girls by the equivalent of one year's schooling. I believe this difference in appeal is partly due to a bias towards female tastes in children’s literature and in picture books in particular. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Boys Reading Commission Report notes that the gap between boys’ and girls’ reading ability is already evident at age 5, which suggests that the problem starts at picture book age.
Although there are plenty of men such as myself writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female. It’s predominately women publishers that select picture books for publication, women teachers that choose which books to read in nurseries and infant classrooms and women customers that purchase picture books for reading at home. Women aren’t keeping men out of these gatekeeper roles, the imbalance is there because relatively few men are interested in occupying them, but as a consequence picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones.

Even picture books that are intended to appeal primarily to boys reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be buying them as well as the child they’re bought for. Picture book pirates are less prone to combat than their counterparts in other media, monsters and aliens less frightening, vehicles and machines less technically detailed. Elements of danger and threat are tamed down or omitted altogether on the grounds of being unappealing or inappropriate. In short, picture books with boy-friendly themes tend to be cuter and tamer than similarly themed TV shows, films or video games.

I think the failure of picture books to accurately reflect the full range of boys’ tastes is deterring many boys from developing a reading habit. Elements with strong boy-appeal such as combat, peril, villainy and technology that are abundant in U certificate films like The Incredibles are rarely found or diluted in picture books. I believe that one reason many children, especially boys, reject books in favour of films, TV and video games is that these media reflect their tastes more effectively.

I’ve written at length about this issue at coolnotcute.com and made several suggestions as to how male tastes might be better represented in the picture book world. One suggestion is that both sexes should be equally represented on the judging panel of the Kate Greenaway Medal, the high-profile UK children’s book award that usually goes to a picture book illustrator. The award is organised by CILIP, the professional body for UK librarians and the winner is chosen each year by a panel of CILIP members who also chose the winner of the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction.

The Greenaway and Carnegie Medals are (to quote their web site) “the UK's oldest and most prestigious children's book awards” and widely regarded as children’s literature’s equivalents of the Man Booker Prize. However, while the Man Booker’s judging panels have been consistently gender-balanced since 1997, the Greenaway and Carnegie panels have for some time been overwhelmingly female. Last year there were twelve women and one man on the panel; this year all thirteen judges are women.

The Greenaway and Carnegie have always made an invaluable contribution to raising the profile of children’s books and promoting children’s literacy for both sexes and I don’t wish to detract from this achievement. However, if we want books to appeal to boys as much as girls, shouldn’t the UK’s “most prestigious children’s book awards” reflect male tastes as much as female ones?

I wrote to the awards’ organisers on 19 March to urge them to adopt a gender-balanced panel for future awards, but have yet to receive a response. I realise that adopting a gender-balanced panel would mean over-representing the number of men working as librarians, but surely it’s more important for “children’s” book awards to reflect the gender balance of the books’ intended readers rather than the profession that serves them? If there aren’t enough male librarians to balance a panel of thirteen, men from related professions such as teaching could be included. Or the size of the panel could be reduced until it could be balanced; a panel of five, like that of the Man Booker, would only require two men to balance it.

I recognise that, as professional librarians, the judges will do their best to be objective and take the reading preferences of both sexes into account. But no judge can be entirely objective; two librarians working in the same library might have differing opinions on the best children’s books published last year. Given that there’ll always be some degree of subjectivity, shouldn’t that subjectivity reflect the tastes of both sexes?

I don’t deny that previous year’s panels have sometimes selected books that have been very appealing to boys. And I can’t claim with any certainty that this year’s panel would select different books if it had been gender-balanced rather than women-only. However, I’d maintain that by consistently selecting panels made up overwhelmingly or exclusively of women, year after year, there is likely to be some overall bias in favour of female preferences. And at a time when we are struggling to make books appealing to boys, it makes sense to address this bias.

The Greenaway and Carnegie are wonderful awards and whichever books the judges pick this year will no doubt be worthy of the recognition that the medals bring them. However, these awards would be even more wonderful and the winning books even more worthy of recognition if both sexes were equally involved in choosing them. Such a change would also help to send out the message that books are for boys as much as girls.

For an alternative viewpoint, you might want to check out the comments section beneath the post on the The New Statesman site where book consultant and former Carnegie Greenaway judge, Jake Hope, defends the way the awards are judged and dismisses my call for a gender-balanced panel.

If you've got any thoughts on the issue, for or against, please post a comment below.

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