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.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Documentaries on Sex Differences and Boys’ Literacy

UPDATES: This post has been updated with the following new content:
June 2014: The Gendered Brain panel discussion added.
September 2014: Horizon: Is Your Brain Male or Female? documentary added. Gareth Malone documentary moved to the top of the page.

Recent evidence has brought a new perspective
to the scientific understanding of sex differences
It’s clear from some of the responses I’ve had to Cool Not Cute that some people don’t accept that some boy-typical or girl-typical tastes are partly innate and believe that such differences are entirely a result of upbringing — a view recently popularised by Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender. In my last post I noted the contrast in the way this book was reviewed in the mainstream and the scientific media and on page 8 of Nature and Nurture I highlight one of the instances where Fine misrepresents the scientific evidence to suit her argument.

All but one of the documentaries on this page examine the scientific evidence that suggests that BOTH nature and nurture are responsible for sex differences in preferences.

Although it doesn't deal directly with the science, I've included this first documentary as it shows how an awareness of sex differences in children's preferences can help to close the gender gap in children's literacy.

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys (BBC 2010) 

My argument in Cool Not Cute is about prevention: I believe that boys’ underachievement in literacy can be nipped in the bud if the first books that boys encounter reflect their enthusiasms as much as TV or video games currently do. This 3-part series is about cure. In it choirmaster Gareth Malone attempts to mend the long-broken reading habits of older primary school boys. Malone believes that primary school teaching tends to encourage girls more than boys and sets out to correct this bias by introducing a number of boy-friendly factors including risk, competition and vigorous outdoor activity. 

This second episode focusses on reading. It begins with the boys play-fighting a Roman battle with swords and shields, an activity that’s intended to fire-up their enthusiasm to read about the Romans. Acknowledging the importance of appealing book content, Malone takes a group of reluctant boy readers to a bookshop to make their own choice of boy-friendly books to add to the school library. “I don’t want the teachers [all but one of whom are female] to be deciding on all the books,” he explains to them.

This approach is more effective with some boys than others and no doubt some of the girls in the school would also have benefitted from it. However, while Malone’s experiment lacks scientific rigour, it shows how an awareness of sex differences can be used to close gender gaps and promote equality between the sexes. Malone is hardly a swaggering alpha male and it’s clear that his promotion of activities with boy-typical appeal is intended to engage boys in schooling so that they will turn into well-rounded individuals rather than brutish sexual stereotypes.

The other 2 episodes of the series can also be viewed using the links below:
Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys: Episode 1
Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys: Episode 3

Bang Goes the Theory (BBC 2009) 

This short clip from the BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory science magazine programme deals with sex differences in children’s toy preferences. It features both a Child X study, which suggests that nurture plays a role in determining children’s tastes, and Melissa Hines and Gerianne Alexander's primate study, which suggests that nature also plays a role.

The Gendered Brain (Wellcome Trust and Kings College London 2013)

This is a panel discussion featuring Melissa Hines, Director of Cambridge University's Hormones and Behaviour Research Lab, Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre and novelist and poet Michèle Roberts.

During the discussion, Hines and Baron-Cohen outline some of the evidence demonstrating that both nature and nurture are responsible for sex-typical characteristics in human behaviour. While this combined nature and nurture view is now held by most psychologists and neuroscientists, Hines refers to a study which shows that only 15% of the public accept it, with the majority of the public believing that either nature or nurture are solely responsible.

Horizon: Is Your Brain Male or Female? (BBC 2014) 

Both of the studies in the Bang Goes the Theory clip above are also featured in this 2014 Horizon documentary. Michael Mosely and Alice Roberts examine recent evidence, with Mosely presenting the evidence for nature in the first half and Roberts the evidence for nurture in the second. Mosely and Roberts appear to reach different conclusions by the end of the programme; while Mosely seems to accept that both nature and nurture may play a significant role in determining gender identity, Roberts appears unconvinced by the evidence suggesting that nature may play a significant role.

The Gender Equality Paradox (NRK 2010) 

This Norwegian documentary (in English and Norwegian with English subtitles) features interviews with researchers on both sides of the innate sex differences debate. The “paradox" of the programme’s title is that young people in gender-egalitarian countries such as Norway tend to be more gender-typical in their career choices than young people in less gender-egalitarian countries. Evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell offers an explanation for this paradox in the programme.

It’s worth noting that all of the researchers featured in the programme that accept the evidence for innate sex differences are either scientists or medical practitioners, while none of the researchers dismissing the scientific evidence are scientifically or medically qualified.

Brainsex (BBC 2005) 

This documentary examines a range of sex-difference studies including those carried out by psychologist Richard Lippa in collaboration with the BBC. The Lippa/BBC studies are based on the analyses of survey results from 200,000 people across 53 countries and demonstrate consistent sex differences in preferences across all cultures.

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