Who Are You? Gender Bias – #KidLitWomen

In 2015, I sat in a darkened auditorium in a hotel in Los Angeles, wanting to throw up. I had word poisoning.

What was the source? The messenger’s message.

In that dark room, Shannon Hale, a keynote speaker at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, was turning the spotlight on gender bias. She recounted stories of school visits, featuring her Princess Academy books, where boys either openly booed the idea of princesses or had been excluded from her assemblies because teachers or school admin believed “boys wouldn’t be interested in her books.”

While I hadn’t said those exact words, I was standing at the top of the slippery slope that takes one there. I had been volunteering in our school’s library and was guilty of saying: “This book has boy written all over it” or “Girls will really like this book.” Possibly more than once.

Fast forward three years, and I am still seized by a tsunami of nausea as I make this confession. Thankfully, I never revealed my bias to a child, but it did influence my recommendations.

Oddly enough, I’ve fought gender pigeon-holing my entire life. I was a “tomboy” who climbed trees and rambled through woods in farm country, who preferred riding horses and doing chores outside to playing with dolls. Pink did not color my world. I was good at math and had no interest in Home Ec. So I went to engineering school.

While earning my degree in Industrial Engineering, I was inducted into two honor societies, Tau Beta Pi and Alpha Pi Mu. When I ran for president of one of the local chapters, I lost. Not surprising at the time, since I was the only female in the room. When I graduated In 1985, I was ranked first in my class, an honor I had worked for, one that could not be voted away.

Then came the IBM Marketing Education program, a grueling series of professional development classes that were considered a “mini-MBA.” Again, I ran for president of my class and lost to a man. One of my female classmates told me afterward that she would have voted for me if I hadn’t teared up during my stump speech. I had gotten emotional while marveling at how we had all helped each other through the program.

The story I’d used to begin my speech came from my teenage “Careers in Zoology” club. There, too, I’d run for president, against a guy who offered a handful of words about his qualifications: he had a tank of tropical fish. I gave the zoology club a full paragraph of my qualifications: I lived on a farm, bottle fed lambs and calves, assisted with de-worming and lambing season, knew how to milk cows, and rode and groomed horses.

I lost. Perhaps my qualifications were not as exotic as tropical fish.

Years later, how could I, a female engineer who’d been disappointed three times in my efforts to land a spot on the elevator to the presidential suite, have turned into someone who segregates boys and girls into generic pools of likes and dislikes?

Well, I have a lame explanation for my temporary insanity. I gave birth to a child who’s a very traditional “boy” boy, one whose first word was not “mom” but “round,” because that’s what wheels are. He also loves backyard ballistics, roughouses like a puppy with his father, and spends much of his time making contraptions and blowing things up in the garage when he‘s not reading MAKE Magazines. “Mom, I know you don’t like Nerf guns,” he says, “but I like figuring out how the mechanisms work and changing them.” OK, as an engineer, I can appreciate that.

On the bell curve of “boy-dom,” he’s perhaps a standard deviation above the “average” in some respects. My mathematical background, the one that allows me to make generalizations based on statistics, led me to believe that there was something to gender differences.

Can you see how that poison seeped into my thinking?

Yes, statistics and norms are vital to data analysis in every field, but if we then use this information to pigeon-hole individuals, or to perpetuate and reinforce specific behaviors, we influence the data for all future samples of our population. Shannon Hale has already documented this: generalizations about what will interest girls or boys are used to steer girls towards her books while boys are steered away from them. What do we end up with? Über princes, princesses, and marginalization of those who feel otherwise.

There is an antidote to the poison. And it’s contained in those three important words: In some respects. Clearly, a single data point on one bell curve doesn’t fully describe my son. He’s an amalgam of myriad data points and bell curves.

He’s also the child who read Charlotte’s Web, and to this day cannot kill a spider even though he’s afraid of them. His tender heart breaks at the thought of someone mistreating any animal. He cries at sad parts in movies and books.

So why is emotional sensitivity considered a female trait?

Even if what we, as a society, are really trying to say is that “the average boy is like” or “the average girl is like,” it’s still not helpful to the conversation and contrary to what we’re trying to overcome in this microcosm: bias in reading due to gender of the main protagonist, subject matter, or perceived “girl” themes.

Biased statements or assumptions also do a disservice to those who don’t fit into average boxes or who move fluidly among gender types. In truth, that’s all of us. An individual is an amalgam of “boy” and “girl” bell curves, skewed or otherwise. We can all benefit from being less rigid in our thinking. We can stop identifying traits as being male or female. We can toss out the bell curves and “norms” that reinforce bias.

Let’s strike the poisonous use of gendered language from our recommendations and our general discourse, and say instead: “If you love animals, you should enjoy this book.” or “If you love spaceships and technology, you should enjoy this book.” By doing so, we’re acknowledging that everyone has a variety of interests regardless of gender identity. It’s not “today I feel like being a girl” or “today I feel like being a boy” or “today I feel androgynous.” It’s today I feel like doing this, that, or the other thing.

Maybe I’ll read picture books about frogs while wearing a sparkly dress, chew my fingernails, AND think about how differential equations can be used to describe and predict the spread of disease, or control guidance systems in driverless cars. Cause that’s who I am—today.

Who are you?

#KidLitWomen are celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ industry. Join in the conversation here or Twitter #kidlitwomen and access all the #KidlitWomen posts this month on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen/

27 thoughts on “Who Are You? Gender Bias – #KidLitWomen

  1. fspoesy says:

    As an elementary school student I loved jump rope and was the only boy in the school-sponsored dance troop. I also loved playing Army and knew I wanted to be a soldier when I grew up. So I’m all for treating people as individuals and not putting them in boxes, even when they sometimes put themselves in boxes.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I’m glad you felt confident in your choices as a child. So many people don’t. You’ve offered excellent examples of how individuals can be quite fluid in their preferences. And I’m glad you kept your confidence into adulthood. Thank you for adding to the discussion!

  2. cricketmuse says:

    Then again aren’t we internally wired to certain likes? I’m trying to sell Jane Eyre to my senior lit class as a “everybody” read. The guys are suspicious that it’s a chick-lit and are not as thrilled about reading it compared to Frankenstein. I don’t think it’s bias so much as interest.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      These things are so hard to tease apart, because conditioning begins in the cradle. I think it’s a combination of internal wiring and external factors, but there’s too much of a tendency to generalize. In your situation, peer pressure could demand that even if one or two or more of the boys in your class were interested, they may not feel comfortable expressing that interest, and may, in fact, be in the group most loudly opposing the selection. Think Shakespeare’s “doth protest too much.” Shannon Hale’s experience at school visits suggests that this type of thing happens more often than we think.

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    This is an important post. You’ve made so many great points. It seems we just assume little girls will read books and watch movies where the main character is a boy, but boys won’t do the same when the main character is a girl. The Hunger Games has shown that doesn’t have to be the case, so I suspect some of it might be in how we promote it. As you mentioned, pointing out something in the book that appeals to readers may be a better way to go. If you like reading books about animals, it shouldn’t matter if the main character is a boy or a girl. Of course there are differences between boys and girls, and we like what we like. But assuming we won’t like something just because of the gender of the main character will make us miss out on all sorts of great things.

  4. FictionFan says:

    You have to bear in mind that I’m old(!) and that I’m clearly a product of my own conditioning. BUT… I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say “this book screams boy/girl”. I do believe in nature over nurture – that genders are born different. You only have to look at size and strength to know that. And I think a lot of today’s problems are as a result of adults trying to condition boyness out of boys as if it’s something bad. And, to a lesser degree, trying to condition girls to think they should want to be captains of industry even if what they really want is to be a domestic mother. (I’m generalising wildly, of course.) Where I totally agree is that if boys or girls want to step beyond the traditional gender roles then society should let them, even encourage them, certainly enable them. But I do think society should also let boys be boys and girls be girls if that’s what they want. I say this as someone who a) reads a lot of books that a lot of girls aren’t the slightest bit interested in because they’re about politics and, conversely, doesn’t read books that millions of women are interested in because they’re about motherhood and kids, and b) ran a school for boys with behavioural difficulties and came to the conclusion that much of the problem stemmed from the fact that they were constantly being told to stop doing anything physically dangerous or having playground fights, so had tons of pent-up energy and aggression with no outlet…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Ah, but what I’m saying is that it’s one thing to use norms for practical purposes, like not restraining boys who have that need to be traditionally boy-ish in the way they learn and interact (your example of a school for boys with behavioral difficulties which were most likely brought on by a curriculum that emphasized lots of sitting, being submissive, and no competition). But it’s another thing to use “norms” as reinforcement tools when it comes to recommending books. There will be books that one wants to say “this has ‘girl’ written all over it,” but when we say that in front of kids, they take it to mean that this isn’t for me if I’m a boy. They internalize that judgement. As an adult, I think your personal preferences speak to that. You would be more than a little ticked off if someone suggested you were “weird” because you liked what you liked and were outside of the norm. In fact, I can imagine you throwing the book at them, literally and figuratively, LOL. I don’t see it as trying to take anything out of anyone. It’s more just letting people be who they are without trying to force them into norms. And since kids often look to adults for validation in the early years, it’s important for us not to steer their ships. Let each child take their own helm of preference and wander about according to their interests. I think we agree.

  5. Sue Heavenrich says:

    great post! And yes, as a tomboy who became a scientist, I sometimes found myself thinking: “oh, this is a book boys would love” – and yet I took great pains to introduce my own boys to Tamora Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness” quartet. Because they were enamored of knights. So I try now to say, “this is a great book for kids who love stories about …..”

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, as someone who’s worked to fight bias against children/adults with disabilities, your knowledge about the tortoise-like speed of change comes from firsthand experience. Maybe you should also be writing your experiences via kidlit channels? But then that might spread you too thin.

  6. Kate Johnston says:

    Such an important post. You reminded me of something that I thought of or that happened this weekend, but I’m blanking now. Had to do with boys and girls and their assumed differences. Hopefully it will come back to me. At any rate, it’s easy to make presumptions because stereotypes are all around us. I don’t want to think about the peer pressure many kids face regarding how they are supposed to act and behave based on gender.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, pressure is everywhere. And it’s really hard to stand up to friends who may apply that pressure directly. But even more insidious is the nonstop cultural indoctrination from advertising and all other media images/messaging. It’s impossible to avoid.

  7. Ste J says:

    You make a good point, it does seem just natural to say a book will appeal to a certain group rather than talk up what could be appealing to a host of different people. Individuality is something forgotten sometimes in recommending.

    I think that cover designs don’t always help, a bright pink cover for example would put most boys off, although having read the blurb for the novel Perfume, I picked it up despite the pink cover because it appealed and therein is the way to sell the idea to a book company so they can fill their pockets.

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