At age two, children begin to develop beliefs about gender, including stereotypes that boys are better at math and girls at reading, according to one study. The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.
However, a new study has looked at a different, potentially under-recognized source of gender stereotypes and associations: popular children’s books. The researchers found that story books contain many words that adults considered to be gendered and likely contribute to gender awareness in children.
“We have found that many popular children’s books often read to young children, such as Curious George and Amelia Bedelia, contain rich information about the genre that is presented in subtle ways,” said Molly Lewis, researcher in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and lead author of the study. “In some cases, the stereotypes in these books were stronger than in books intended for adults,” she added.
Previous research on children’s books and gender stereotypes relied primarily on content analysis. Lewis and his team took a different approach. They assembled a corpus of 247 books commonly read by children aged five and under and asked adults to rate on a five-point scale how well words in the text of the books were associated with masculinity and femininity. . An overall gender bias score was calculated for each book.
Books with the highest female bias scores included Chrysanthemum, Brave Irene, and Amelia Bedelia, according to the study. Those with the highest male bias scores were Curious George, Dear Zoo, and Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. The Polar Express, In the Night Kitchen, and Hippos Go Berserk were rated “neutral”.
The researchers also used “integrated words,” a machine learning method, to measure gender associations between words beyond adult ratings. This approach identified patterns of gender-related “neighbor words”, which are terms that typically appear together in large bodies of text, such as “merry” and “Christmas” in American English. Analysis showed that children’s books vary widely in the number of gender associations they contain, from strongly masculine to strongly feminine.
“We found that books that we felt to be sexist based on adult judgments also tended to be biased when we used this automated method,” Lewis said.
“This is important because it suggests that some of the gender associations that emerge in adulthood are starting to show up in children’s text statistics and could potentially be learned by being exposed to children’s books,” Lewis added. Machine learning has also been used to examine whether gender stereotypes that social psychologists have uncovered in previous behavioral experiences have also appeared in children’s books.
“For example, we found that the statistical word models in these books reflected the stereotype that boys are good at math while girls are good at reading,” Lewis said.
“Another unexpected result was that children tended to be exposed to books that conveyed gender stereotypes about their own gender – girls tended to read books about female characters; boys tended to read books about their own gender. male characters, ”Lewis said. “These findings are important because they suggest that books may inadvertently teach young children about gender stereotypes,” Lewis added.
One unanswered question identified by the research is how children learn about other gender stereotypes when they read books with stereotypes about their own gender more often. The researchers suggested that children collect this information from media representations and personal interactions. And, as many children receive more information about their own gender, they may have “less precise hunches” about stereotypes of other genders.
Overall, there were more female biases in the corpus than male biases. However, research also found that gender representations varied among the books studied. “One implication of this finding is that parents may be able to influence the development of children’s gender beliefs through their choice of books,” Lewis said.
An encouraging finding, she said, is that not all storybooks contain gender stereotypes and some contain information about gender that contradicts the stereotypes. “We also found clues of historical change in the way the genre was portrayed in children’s books,” Lewis said. “Books published more recently were more likely to have female lead characters and lead characters without obvious gender associations,” Lewis concluded.