An analysis of thousands of children’s books published in the last 60 years suggests that male protagonists remain overrepresented, despite a higher portion of books now featuring female leads.
To see whether gender bias still exists in American children’s literature, researchers out of Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. conducted a statistical analysis comparing the number of male protagonists to female ones in 3,280 books.
According to the report, these books were aimed for audiences between the ages of zero and 16, and were published between 1960 and 2020. The majority of these books were published in the year 2000 or later (2,638).
The analysis found that, since 1960, the proportion of female central characters has increased, and continues to increase. However, the authors report that books published since 2000 still feature a “disproportionate number” of male protagonists.
The findings were published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE.
While the analysis notes that other reports have found a bias in male versus female representation of protagonists in children’s books prior to 2000, the authors say there is little evidence as to whether that bias has persisted.
As well, it had been previously unclear which factors may be linked to male and female protagonist representation.
“Although male protagonists remain overrepresented in books written for children (even post-2000), the present study found that the male-to-female ratio of protagonists varied according to author gender, age of the target audience, character type, and book genre,” the study’s authors wrote.
“In other words, some authors and types of books were more equitable in the gender representation of protagonists in children’s books.”
This analysis looked at primarily English-language children’s books that can be purchased online in the U.S. as either hard copies or digital books.
In order to establish a comparison between the rates of appearances of male versus female main characters, the report’s authors focused on books featuring a single, central protagonist. They also only included books for which the gender of the book author was identifiable and matched for all authors, if more than one.
The researchers reported a “persistent overrepresentation” of male protagonists in these children’s books, and found that gender bias is higher for fiction books featuring non-human characters than fiction texts with human characters.
In addition, the analysis found non-fiction books to have a “greater degree of gender bias” than fiction books, especially when the characters are human.
The analysis reports that books by male authors have showed a decline in bias since 1960, but only in those books that were written for a younger audience.
Books by female authors also declined in bias over time, predominantly with more female than male central protagonists featured in books for older children and in books with human characters, according to the analysis.
The study’s authors note that future research could build on these findings by considering reading rates of specific books, as well as books with non-binary characters.
The study’s authors say that gender bias has persisted in children’s literature because it continues to exist in society.
“Even if explicit gender discrimination occurs less frequently today than in the past, implicit attitudes about females being submissive and less worthy than males remain pervasive,” they wrote.
Because of this, the report said that male characters continue to be seen as the “default” in books for kids.
“Parity has not yet been achieved in all types of books or by all authors,” researchers wrote.
The study’s authors say the findings could help “guide efforts toward more equitable gender representation” in children’s books, thus impacting child development and societal attitudes.
“Taken together, the results from the current study suggest important multiple confluences of gender representation in children’s books,” they wrote.