What Was on My mind this month?
Girls. Girl readers to be exact.
I’ve been talking to children at schools about The Stuff Between the Stars. After they hear about Vera Rubin’s pioneering role in the male-dominated world of astronomy, a girl inevitably asks: Can women be astronomers today? I always give an encouraging and resounding, Of course! There are lots of women astronomers.
And there are—just not as many as male astronomers. A 2019 report by the American Institute of Physics says that, although things have improved since Princeton denied Vera Rubin access because she was a woman, things are not equal. Only 19% of astronomy faculty are women. Male astronomy undergrads outnumber females by two to one.
But, the girls at my school visits don’t know this. At the end of The Stuff Between the Stars, Vera Rubin is at the very center of astronomy. She has discovered dark matter and revolutionized modern physics and astronomy.
As we know, for a child to see herself represented in a book makes a difference. Fiction books with female central characters are impactful because the simple fact that the story centers around a female attests to her significance. The unspoken message is that she is important; her story is important. Nonfiction picture books about women have double the impact because they can be read for the simple joy of reading and be used when talking to children about science, art, or history. The unspoken message goes from she is important to she is very important. She is real. She is part of our history. She did it, and so can I.
And yet, the girls ask: Can women be astronomers today?
Their question got me thinking about the broader message children’s books are conveying to girls. A 2011 study conducted by Professor Janice McCabe looked at 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 and found that male central characters outnumbered female central characters by nearly two to one. That’s twice as many stories about male central characters. What is more, no more than 33% of children’s books published in any single year contained central characters that are adult women or female animals, while adult men and male animals appeared in up to 100% of books. Although this study hasn’t been updated, I’m guessing there has been progress since 2000. Just look at the celebration of women in STEM books we are seeing!
Yet, has the past 20 years improved so much that the number of female characters now equals the number of male characters on our library and school bookshelves? I doubt it. Many of the classics—Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Tale of Peter Rabbit—will forever and always remain stories centered around male characters. In addition, there still remains the belief that boys will only read stories about boys, while girls will read stories about both boys and girls–a belief that tips toward including more male characters than female.
Have any of you watched the Inside Pixar series on Disney+? Episode 4 tells how Jessica Heidt, a script supervisor, noticed that male characters outnumbered female characters. In fact, for films monitored between 2007 and 2013, out of every six people on screen, four were male and two were female. It’s that double male to female number again. In animated films, less than a third of characters were female.
So, Jessica started tracking statistics. A colleague created software to help her. And it made a difference. Pixar started asking, Does this character have to be male? It asked, Can this line go to a female? They started taking steps to make gender representation in their films mirror gender representation in life.
As we all know, girls face stronger challenges than boys when it comes to confidence. After reading the victorious story of Vera Rubin, they still ask, Can women be astronomers today? Imagine what their confidence might look like if they grew up with stories where female characters outnumbered male characters two to one—the opposite of what history gave them. As Janice McCabe said, “The widespread pattern of underrepresentation of females that we find supports the belief that female characters are less important and interesting than male characters. This may contribute to a sense of unimportance among girls and privilege among boys.”
I believe from the bottom of my heart that we can even things out—even if we don’t have a software program that tracks gender balance in our manuscripts. Representation matters. We all know that. Now, it’s up to each of us to ask, Does this character have to be male? Can this line go to a female?
I would love to hear any and all of your thoughts and ideas. Thanks so much.
Also, plan to stop by on May 25, as part of Mental Health Month. Elizabeth Gilbert Bedia will be talking about her picture book, Balloons for Papa, and the role children play in helping us all deal with fear and grief.