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Academics worried that children’s books reinforce gender stereotypes

A quintet of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found in a recent study that many popular children’s books may … “solidify children’s beliefs about gender.”

Published in Psychological Science, the “What Might Books Be Teaching Young Children About Gender?” study discovered that over 240 popular kids’ books “contain many words that adults judge as gendered,” and many “instantiate gender stereotypes.”

According to The Cap Times, the five examined the “gender associations” of some 200,000 words, rating terms such as “axe” and “engine” as masculine, and “cuddle” and “pink” as feminine.

Male characters often were depicted as “playful” and “fun,” while females as “caring” or “quiet.” The young (male) monkey Curious George, for example, “repeatedly gets into mischief while exploring his new world […] the stereotype is this male character breaking all these rules […] he’s exploring, he’s doing active physical things.”

Approximately half of the examined books had “exclusively male or female primary characters,” and the stories’ gender biases “more often reflected those of its main characters.” And, oddly enough, “stereotypically female or male books were more frequently read to kids of the corresponding gender.”

Lead researcher Molly Lewis did note gender representation wasn’t always clear-cut in the books, and said such is “particularly pernicious” when relating the stories to children.

But all is not lost, so to speak:

Still, Lewis pointed out that not all the books adhered to these biases. There was “a fair amount of variability” in gender associations and stereotypes across these books, which Lewis said she found encouraging and surprising.

“The other thing I found surprising was that there are hints of historical change in the corpus,” she said. “More recently published books are more likely to have female main characters and characters without obvious gender associations — something that I didn’t predict.”

And this is kind of important — the study notes “causal links between the properties we observed and the gender associations that children form remain to be addressed.”

Read the article and study.

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