Gender bias in children’s books …and what to do about it.

I have a 2.5-year-old daughter who loves to be read to by her parents (who also love to read). We started reading to her fairly early and now it is a regular before-bedtime ritual.

However, while researching books and going through recommendations, books lists, and Amazon bestsellers, I began to struggle to find books where the central character is a girl or female. I then focused on books with animal characters and then hit another roadblock trying to find books where the pronouns were not he/him.

An article by The Guardian from 2018, noted that in an in-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, the lead characters were 50% more likely to be male than female. This was even more marked in books where the characters were animals rather than humans — the pronoun used for the animal(s) was 73% more likely to be male rather than female. In addition, males were typically embodied as powerful, wild, and potentially dangerous beasts such as dragons, bears, and tigers, while females tend to be smaller and more vulnerable creatures such as birds, cats, and insects.

This problem is of course pervasive — it is present in cartoons, children’s songs, the behavior of parents, and the skewed view of other humans interacting with your child. I too have had to unlearn some of the “lessons” of social conditioning to realize the inherent bias in the world. Case in point — the gender bias in children’s books is something I noticed when I was a new parent and not in my own books-filled childhood.

The problem begins in childhood and this video from as recent as 2016, illustrates this:

So, what can you do about it?

1. Self-awareness — understand and address your own biases. Here’s a great place to start.

2. Watch your language when addressing any child and indeed the world. Use gender-neutral terms such as “police officer” instead of “policeman”, “chairperson” instead of “chairman”, “salesperson” instead of “salesman”, or “salesgirl”. Do not use “woman/female doctor”, “woman/female police officer” etc.

3. Research the book before purchasing it. Most children’s books have been read aloud on YouTube at some point and you can review them there. I do this for all my children’s book purchases now.

4. Change the pronouns when you read aloud to your kids. This might seem like a cop-out, but you will receive books as gifts and it can get pretty frustrating to read your umpteenth book with no female character or female pronoun. My husband went one step ahead and used a marker to change the pronouns in some of the books we own.

5. Gift a book with a central female character to a boy. You will be surprised how little this happens (the reverse is the norm).

6. Support books with well-represented central female characters. My current favorite illustrator/writer is Christian Robinson. Not only are female characters well-represented but all characters attempt to reflect different socio-cultural identities.

*The author originally published the article on Medium in the publication “Illumination”

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Juhi Kumar
Risk professional. Bibliophile. Fitness aficionado. Mom of 2.

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