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.

scroll down further for blog posts

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.

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