Gender bias in children’s books has real-world consequences. It’s time to shift the narrative

In the month of International Women’s Day, author and co-founder of Butterfly Books, Jason Bryan, talks about how being a father of daughters has made him even more determined to tackle inequality through children’s books.

A lot of our creative work as writers is about recasting vocabulary and labels. Language is such a powerful tool and has the ability to both unify and divide, liberate or vilify those who are ‘othered’ or are completely voiceless.

But it also has the power to inspire and inform, and that is exactly what children’s books should do.

As a parent to daughters and as a writer, I have come to fully appreciate how unhelpful titles like ‘fireman’ and ‘matron’ are at dismantling sexist stereotypes. Hearing about the real-life stories and challenges faced by some of these professionals we’ve worked with in developing books like My Mummy Is A Footballer or My Daddy Is A Nurse is quite saddening and maddening at the same time. Whilst some of these people said that they were ‘lucky’ enough to have allies in the workplace that supported their career progression, many others experienced the opposite, with their intelligence and capabilities questioned or even insulted.

Wherever there is a lack of diversity in jobs and industries, ignorance and discrimination can run riot. Making things fairer for all is no mean feat because the structures in place that prevent diversity from really happening are engrained, both practically and in terms of mindsets. We think it’s important to dismantle these discriminatory systems right at the grassroots – through education, common discourse and narratives. We need to normalise diversity.

Jason Bryan joined by Nurses, including  Ruth May (Chief Nursing Officer for England)  at Percy Shurmer Academy for My Daddy is a Nurse Book Launch

Being a parent, I am ever more conscious about the quality of the books my children read at school and at home which is shaping their world views, dreams and aspirations. I do find KS1/KS2 books reinforce subtle gendered roles. With the Oxford Reading Tree scheme, you tend to find ‘Dad’ always rattling about in the shed fixing things and ‘Mum’ in the kitchen doing the chores. I appreciate that this was probably not the intention; just a reflection of the times in which they were created. But the fact that these old and gendered narratives form a daily part of our children’s literary diet is a concern. These storylines prime young minds to internalise biases which perpetuate the models of inequality we see across nearly all industries today.

We need to see children’s stories with characters and heroes outside of the usual stereotypes. Inspiring children to understand that, with application, passion and hard work, they can pursue any job they choose no matter what gender they are or what background they come from, needs to start from a reasonably early age before misconceptions set in to limit their sights.

To do this, the narrative must be told by diverse role models that break convention. Kerrine, my sister and co-founder of Butterfly Books, has carved a very successful career as an engineer. As a STEM ambassador, however, she discovered first-hand that if youngsters don’t see people who look like them doing a certain job, then they are less likely to go for it. It was Kerrine who actually came up with the concept of setting up an independent publisher of children’s books with the ultimate aim of re-writing the narratives told to children that can often limit and dictate their dreams.

Admittedly, I never fully appreciated some of the challenges that Kerrine faced and negotiated as a black working-class woman entering the very white and male-dominated field of engineering. Not to excuse male bias, but I guess the relative ‘ease’ with which men can enter an all-male boardroom or be on a site with all male workers, can make this obliviousness all too easy.

We have collaborated with many amazing organisations and bodies – the NHS, The British Army, The London Fire Brigade, to name just a few – to create children’s books that celebrate a diversity of people taking up diverse roles in these institutions. Beyond the stories, these are fantastic campaigns that have risen the profile of everyday heroes all working together to inspire the next generation of talent to consider jobs they would not have ordinarily thought of because they were told or believed that it’s not “for them”.

From the professional footballer whose mother discouraged her from taking up a ‘masculine’ sport; the train driver who was told “I didn’t think women were allowed to drive trains!” to the male nurse who was asked: “were you not clever enough to be a doctor then?” – we’ve been lucky enough to meet inspiring people who have triumphed in the face of challenges and their detractors. Self-belief really is a mobilising force.

More by accident than design, we have tended to launch our books in the month of International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity and, for us, that means ensuring that our books and work our accessible to everyone and that there’s someone or something in all of our books that all children can relate to. Whilst celebrating the achievements of remarkable women who have set the path for change so that many others will follow has always been important to us, the overall message we want to put out there is equality – on all levels – is the way forward to a more innovative future.

With my girls, I do my best to ensure that they know about all sorts of careers and can entertain these as possibilities for the future without feeling that their gender, race or background will hold them back. But the most important thing I try to encourage is that they pursue things they enjoy over anything else. Sometimes I think about the potential talent that industries have lost out on, simply because young people were put off from entering in the first place because the lack of diversity was too intimidating. These are valid fears. That’s why it’s time to change the narratives so that young dreams are not capped.