Updated: Mar 26
The benefits for children of reading, being read to and having access to a well-stocked library are well documented.
What children read impacts on how they see themselves and those around them. Yet within school and library shelves, gender stereotypes all too often prevail – and this needs to change. Books are an engaging way for children to understand how we express our cultural roles, be they male or female. For example, in stories about school teachers of young children are shown as women, teachers of older children are shown as men and head teachers are nearly always male. Nothing wrong with that you might think- until you think about who is earning what? You won't be surprised to learn that secondary teachers earn more than primary teachers, and male Head Teachers earn a lot more than female ones!
Research shows that these attitudes, behaviours and their accompanying stereotypes dominate children’s media – books, TV, film and popular culture. For example, that women are shown to be doing work in gender stereotypic ways by residing in home settings, carrying out child caring, nursing, cleaning and food preparation, and occupying typically feminine job roles outside the home. While men have frequently been found engaging in adventurous behaviour, outdoor activities and fixing mechanical things and in picture books found in preschool classrooms, stories characters are more frequently male.
Studies have also shown that children can distinguish between men and women by the age of nine to 12 months, and that gender stereotypes and behaviours are evident by the age of 3.
Research also shows that this stereotyping children encounter in their books from an early age appears to have significant effects. It affects children’s ideas, beliefs and behaviour from a very young age. It can contribute to all key areas of life, including education and careers. By the time, they reach NVQ age the girls are already choosing types of work pathways that can be interrupted to have children and boys are choosing careers that will bring in a steady income. Culturally, you might be unconcerned by that as this is your experience - women are traditionally the ones who will have time off to have children and may or may not return to work afterwards. However, what about the girls who want something more than housework and child rearing and the boys who aren’t adventurous and those who don’t want to play sports or fix things?
Children copy everything around them, they learn to make sense of relationships, understanding traditionally boundaries, learning from their adult role models and if books repeatedly take them to worlds that mirror what they found on the outside - they will have their choices limited. A world where there are no strong women or, in some cases, any female leadership at all, starts to look normal to them. The more books they read like that, the more it convinces them that a role in science, architecture and engineering is not for women and men should not be nurses or midwives, stay at home dads and creative.
What can we do as home schooling community? When you visit the library, or buy new books - help your child choose those books that include positive male and female role models, inspiring narratives and all things that support inclusion and differences.
Reconsider books both from the viewpoint of including clever and caring men, and risk-taking scientific, technologic, engineering and mathematical women. Aim for a 50:50 inclusion of genders for historical and scientific figures. Encourage your child not to limit their opportunities based on their genders.
The results to the over 12 year olds still show that boys stop reading once they start their teenage years. This could be because, in school, reading is based on stories and we don’t seem to value non-fiction in the same way. Although within mainstream education, there has been some recent curriculum changes. As a result, there has been some improvements in boys reading levels but they are still outperformed by the girls.
What is being read at this age is also having an impact upon the young women. The scientific, technologic, engineering and mathematical books and employment sectors are flooded with men and few women. We need to get more girls seeing themselves as having a future in these careers – through textbooks, subject-specific literature and reading for pleasure, rather than stories where the female lead needs to be rescued or falling in love with the male lead.
As for our home-schooled boys – we need to send the message that they need to continue to read and read more. In many cultures, it is the men that run business. However in business you need to read and write well. For some nevertheless, it appears that this is the role of female secretary or in the case of self-employed - it is the wife that does undertakes that role. We need to address both of those fixed ideas. Women can run businesses and men can work in the legal role of Company Secretaries.
One of the reasons why we read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it offers a wealth of opportunities to talk with young adolescences about different roles each gender fulfils in play it is not just about the love-struck couple and sword fights.