When I think back to some of my favorite stories growing up, several classics come to mind—The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Little Prince and The Velveteen Rabbit to name a few. Of course, as a kid, I’d neither noticed, nor cared, that these stories’ main characters were all male. But according to a recent study from Florida State University, lead male characters in children’s stories are not at all uncommon. In fact, they seem to be the norm. The findings show a bias toward stories featuring male characters—including animals—in children’s literature over the last century.
The study examined nearly 6,000 children’s books published from 1900 to 2000. Of those, 57 percent had a male protagonist, while only 31 percent of the leads were female (the rest of the characters were gender neutral animals, like in Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar). And animals didn’t fare much better: Male animals are central characters in more than 23 percent of books published per year, while female animals are in only 7.5 percent.
As to why this inequality exists, especially in animals, the authors say some publishers—under pressure to release books that are more gender balanced—use animal characters in an attempt to avoid the problem of gender representation. Still, their findings show that most animal characters are gendered and that inequality among animals is actually greater—not less—than that among human characters.
Since children’s books can contribute to how kids understand gender roles and stereotypes, the authors of the study say the lack of female characters in books is sending children a message that women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys. This may contribute to a sense of feeling unimportant among girls, and one of privilege among boys.
So what can parents do to get their kids thinking about gender stereotypes? Start with introducing your child, boy or girl, to books portraying girls and women in a positive light with active, dynamic roles—even if it doesn’t end up being your child’s favorite book, that’s okay; you’ll still be showing that those types of female characters exist. Look for any books that challenge gender stereotypes—whether it’s about a girl who starts playing football, or the only boy in a ballet class (check out this great list of books featuring non-traditional gender roles). And if the main character’s gender isn’t plainly stated, be careful before you yourself label it as a he or a she—ask for your child’s opinion first. Some more tips: Ask your child, for example, what the story of Sleeping Beauty would have been like if the princess was actually a prince. Or, read a story and then have your child guess what the author’s gender is based on what you just read.