Children’s stories can challenge stereotypes

As book week draws near, new research shows the potential power of children’s books to challenge gendered stereotypes in science, technology, engineering and maths. Meanwhile Australian children are spoilt for choice when it comes to diverse books, keep reading below for some recommendations.

A research team from the Netherlands, the United States and Canada found when children were read a story that countered stereotypes, for example about a girl who’s good at maths, afterwards they were less likely to hold gendered stereotypes than the control group. The paper is published in PLOS one.

The study involved reading aloud to more than 300 North American six to eleven-year-olds, with each child randomly assigned to be read one of three different books. 

The first story was stereotype-consistent, in which a boy character performed well in maths, while a girl was shown liking and excelling in reading. The second was a counter-stereotypical case, where the story was the same but the characters’ genders were reversed. The third was a neutral story where swimming and tennis replaced the activities of maths and reading.

After being read one of the three, the children completed a child-friendly ‘implicit association test’, which involved sorting maths words (like addition, count, math, numbers) and reading related words (like books, letters, words, read) into boy and girl categories. They also completed a ‘self-concept’ test, answering questions like ‘how much do you like maths?’

While gendered stereotypes about STEM can be formed early, an important finding of the study was that children’s attitudes are malleable, and books which counter stereotypes can help challenge the status quo.

The findings are significant given globally and in Australia, women and girls are under-represented in STEM fields and professions, with gendered perceptions a contributing factor, acting as a barrier to girls’ engagement. 

Read more: The systemic factors wedging a persistent gender gap in science

Jo Panckridge is a teacher-librarian and the Victorian president of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. She says diversity in all its forms is having a huge impact in the publishing world. 

For Australian books offering an antidote to traditional gendered views about STEM, Panckridge reels off a long list of titles, starting with Our Little Inventor by Sher Rill Ng. It’s about a girl who invents an air purifying device to solve pollution.

Everyday Wonders by Natala Graetz, is brilliant for younger readers Panckridge says. The book highlights mothers who are “ordinary but powerful women – they can be doctors, they can be lawyers, they can be scientists, they can be all sorts of things”.

Stellarphant by James Foley tells the story of a girl elephant who wants to be an astronaut but is refused by the managers at Space Command. The picture book showcases “a great example of persistence and resilience” and the love of engineering, space and mathematics, Panckridge says.

Heroes, Rebels and Innovators by Karen Wyld celebrates the significant contributions of seven iconic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and is shortlisted for the CBCA’s Eve Pownall Award for factual books.

Andrea Beaty’s Ada Twist, Scientist and Rosie Revere, Engineer deserve a mention, along with Alex Miles’ series Girl Geeks about a group of ten-year-olds who like to code and play video games. 

“Dreaming with eyes open…” is the theme for this year’s CBCA book week (August 20 – 26). 

Panckridge says it is both a celebration of First Nations’ storytellers, as well as more broadly “an invitation for children, and teens and young adults, to dream to venture into books, to lose yourself in books and explore the places and people and experiences that stories of this country enable us to understand and to learn from.”

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