The Influence of School and Reading Materials on Children’s
Gender Role Socialization: An Overview of Literature
forthcoming, Curriculum and Teaching, 2001
Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
School of Family & Consumer Sciences
The University of Akron|

     As children develop, there are many environmental influences on their socialization to adult roles.  Influences include parents, media, peers and school experience.  The reading materials children use in school show males and females in various roles; the portrayal of males and females in those materials has a strong impact on how children view male and female roles in society.  This overview of literature dealing with the influence of reading materials on gender role socialization suggests that adherence to traditional gender roles is encouraged and perpetuated by the books used in schools today much as it was 25 years ago.

     In 1912 the government of the United States mandated compulsory education for all children, boys and girls (Golombok & Fivush, 1994).  While the letter of the law may be followed, the spirit of the law sometimes gets diverted.  In actuality, boys and girls receive very different educations.  Outcomes for both genders can be either positive or negative; however, girls seem to have the most long-term negative outcomes, even though they begin on a more positive footing (Golombok & Fivush, 1994; Sadker & Sadker, 1994).  For example, at the elementary level, girls adjust better to school than boys.  Females at this age are reinforced for obedience and neatness, which school demands.  As school life becomes more competitive and geared towards future careers, however, girls’ academic success declines (Basow, 1992).  School counselors very often concentrate their efforts on male career paths and ignore the special circumstances females will frequently face, for example, interrupted employment or family responsibilities (Basow, 1992).

     As an influence on gender role learning, the school setting is one in which children develop friendships, model teacher behaviors, and learn from textbooks and other reading materials which reinforce gender stereotypes and biases (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Best, 1983).  History books, for example, divide the past into a time frame based on men’s lives - wars, politics, government - and generally ignore women’s lives or accomplishments (Basow, 1992). It has been suggested that within the school setting there are three curricula of gender role learning:

    Whether overt or covert, these curricula are set up and supported by the school and are part of the socialization process for children.  Teachers provide messages about gender role development through activities, modeling, reinforcement and other forms of communication (Basow, 1992).  Even the organization of the school system itself reinforces the idea of men in positions of authority and women in subservient positions (Basow, 1992).  This organization mirrors gender stereotypes that exist throughout society.  Although schools should be one of the most important social settings in which children can validate and refine their gender beliefs, they are frequently found to expose children to masculine and feminine images that are even more rigid than those in the wider society (Meece, 1987).

     Studies have shown that teachers often give more attention to boys than to girls (Thorne, 1993).  This attention seems to contribute to the fact that males tend to dominate the classroom (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Basow, 1992).  A meta analysis of 81 studies of classroom interaction showed that boys received 56% of classroom interaction with the teacher and girls received 44% (Kelly, 1988).  This same meta analysis also found that although girls raise their hands more often, teachers call on boys with more frequency.  In addition, boys receive more praise from the teacher even through they are viewed as more troublesome (Kelly, 1988).  One study found that the best predictor of student success in the 7th and 8th grades is teacher judgment.  Unfortunately, that teacher adjustment is frequently biased in favor of males (Farkas, Grobe, Sheehan, & Shuan, 1990).

     Gender differentiation is frequently the basis for organization, control, and management of the classroom (Croll & Moses, 1991).  This differentiation is not always seen as negative, however.  Croll & Moses (1991) suggest that although girls are treated differently than boys in elementary school, they are not disadvantaged because of this.  It cannot be denied, though, that within the school setting girls learn that they occupy a different place in the educational system than boys.  This learning includes an understanding that their role is to make fewer demands and receive less attention and fewer resources (Lloyd & Duveen, 1992).

     Girls are less likely than boys to be  green arms,  those children who put their entire bodies into their quest for teacher attention.  Green arms raise their arms high, move them around, thrust the air, and are likely to make noise in order to be called on (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).  Female students are more likely to crook their arms when they raise them, giving a more passive attempt to gain attention.  The end result is that teachers are more likely to call on the green arm student, contributing to the domination of the classroom by the boys (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).  Ironically, the norms of school include sitting quietly, cooperating with one another, and concentrating on the task at hand.  It has been suggested that both boys and girls suffer conflict over their gender role and the relevant norms of school.  However, boys are likely to be more open about the problems they encounter in school, while girls are more likely to keep quiet about any difficulties they face (Silvern & Katz, 1986).

     The amount of time teachers wait after asking students a question also favors boys.  Girls take a few extra seconds of thought before raising their hands to answer a question.  Boys are more likely to be thinking of their answer while raising their hands.  Because teachers only wait about nine-tenths of a second before calling on a student, boys tend to be called on more often (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

     One group of researchers has identified six aspects of the social representation of gender in the school setting.  These aspects serve as resources for the expression of social gender identities:

         Teachers reinforce these aspects of gender role representation by using differential praise, such as praising boys for knowledge and girls for obedience (Golombok & Fivush, 1994).  Also, girls are more likely to receive praise for their appearance and boys for achievement (Sadker & Sadker, 1994), i.e.,  Richard, you did a great job on your math test.  I could tell you really thought those problems through , as compared with  Janet, your hair looks very pretty today.   Teacher patterns of praise and criticism let boys know they are smart but not well-behaved, and let girls know they are not very smart but will receive rewards for being good (Golombok & Fivush, 1994).  Teachers initiate 10% more communication with boys in the classroom than with girls, and that communication frequently involves more complex, abstract, and open-ended questions for the boys (American Association of University Women, 1989), i.e.,  James, why did the revolution occur,  as compared with,  Julie, when did the revolution occur? .
    There are differences in the academic performance of boys and girls, although whether this is due to biological or socialization differences is frequently debated.  One researcher has suggested that there is a certain amount of testosterone necessary at puberty in order to fully develop spatial skills, thus indicating that males will necessarily be better at these skills than females (Halpern, 1992).  Other research indicates that gender differences in school achievement are better explained by expectations which are placed upon children, from parents and teachers (Golombok & Fivush, 1994; Lummis & Stevenson, 1990).
    The cultural stereotype is that girls excel in language arts, and boys excel in math and science (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Hyde & Linn, 1988; Eccles, 1987).  Parents contribute to gender differentiated attitudes about academic performance by expecting sons to be better at math and science and daughters to be better at reading (Lummis & Stevenson, 1990).  This ingrained belief that boys are inherently better at mathematics is shown by the fact that boys’ success in math is often attributed to talent, while girls’ success in math is attributed to effort (American Association of University Women, 1989).  Not only parents and teachers believe that boys have more math ability; female students are much more likely to believe that any inadequacies they have in school performance are due to lack of ability.  Boys are more likely to believe that they have more ability, but that lack of effort causes them difficulties (American Association of University Women, 1989).
    While it is true that females outperform males in vocabulary and reading comprehension from elementary through high school years (Hogrebe, Nest, & Newman, 1985), this advantage has been shown to be very small (Hyde & Linn, 1988).  The gender differences in math and science have also been diminishing over time (Baennenger & Newcombe, 1989).
 Schools are sometimes criticized for allowing students to dream and wonder but then failing to offer any realistic knowledge about their place in the world or how to go about making sense of the real world (Grant & Sleeter, 1988).  Girls have been found to have expectations that they will not do as well as boys in some subject areas, particularly math courses (Golombok & Fivush, 1994).  Girls are more likely than boys to believe that there is nothing they can do if they fail at a task.  Boys, on the other hand, attribute failure to a lack of effort and then work harder to master a task (Dweck, 1986).  Females are more likely to blame something within themselves when they have a difficulty, while boys are more likely to blame something outside themselves (Basow, 1992).  One study suggests that females may see attributing success to ability as boasting, and that boasting is seen as particularly negative for females (Heatherington, Crown, Wagner & Rigby, 1989).
    One researcher has suggested that females are exposed to a  curriculum of inferiority  (Bernard in Basow: 156).  It could be argued that this curriculum of inferiority is partly taught through outdated or nonrepresentational textbooks.  Because textbooks account for a large amount of school instruction, they represent an influential factor in the socialization of children, and thus, should be chosen with care by educators.

Gender Bias in Children’s Reading Materials

     Recently, there has been much attention given to the topics of gender bias and gender stereotyping within the school setting (Witt, 1997; Davies & Banks, 1992; Purcell & Stewart, 1990; Luke, Cooke & Luke, 1986; Jacklin & Mischel, 1973).  Those who have studied the school setting have often found that teachers have certain gender-stereotyped expectations of boys and girls; for example, that girls have a  helpless  approach toward achievement and that boys use  mastery-oriented  behavior.  When students behave in a manner opposite from these expectations, they are treated as being ‘different’ or unusual.  Because helpless behaviors are reinforced for girls, girls may be less likely to engage in assertive behaviors (Boggiano & Barrett, 1991).
    An aspect of the school setting that has been shown to be of interest to many researchers is the prevalence of gender bias within the books that children use in school.  Often, children’s literature and basal readers contain words, pictures, and descriptions that indicate that it is more desirable to be male than it is to be female (Witt, 1997; Davis, 1984; Weitzman, 1977; Jacklin & Mischel, 1973).  It has been well- documented that children who have high self esteem value themselves and evaluate their abilities highly (Santrock, 1994; Schickedanz, Schickedanz, Hansen & Forsyth, 1993; Jensen & Kingston, 1986).  It is logical to assume that when children view themselves in a negative way, they are less likely to be successful in life.  From the educational focus of Froebel in 1895 through the make-believe world of childhood fairy tales, right on up to the attitudes and behaviors exhibited in many currently-used elementary readers, males are seen as better, faster, smarter, funnier, more inquisitive and just generally more superior than females.  Consider the following quotation from the preface to Froebel’s book:

 I have been sorry to give so masculine a preponderance
  to the child in this book, but the reason for this mode of
  expression may be attributable to the peculiarities of our
  language.  Many sentences would be unintelligible if ‘it’
  were always used to designate a child as well as an
  object.  I might have used ‘her’ instead of ‘him’ but
  where then, would have been the masculine supremacy?
  (Froebel, 1895).

     Because children’s books play such an important role in the development of fundamental reading skills of school children, it is natural that the attitudes and values exhibited in these readers are likely to be accepted by those children who read them.  While the attitude of Mr. Froebel in the passage above may be understandable considering the norms of society during the 1890s, it is a less understandable viewpoint in the 1990s.  At a time when women and men are viewed as equals by much of the population, bias is still evident in the readers and literature that children are exposed to.  For example, it has been found that in American children’s books:
              - there are 2.3 males in the title for every female.

              - there are 2.9 male adult central characters for every female.
              - there are 2.4 male child central characters for every female.
              - there are 4.3 male animal central characters for every female.

              - in books that won the Caldecott Medal ten boys are pictured for
                every girl (Weiss, 1991).

     Because role models help a child develop, it is important that they not be too rigid or narrowly defined.  And because obsolete, narrow role models make it difficult for children to grow into happy, productive adults, it is important that children be exposed to role models which are based on social reality (Purcell & Stewart, 1990).  When a child spends nearly 20 years reading books that encourage males and traditional masculine behaviors and ignore or discourage females and traditional feminine behaviors, this is likely to play a major role in the development of gender attitudes (Rudman, 1984).
    Children’s literature and basal readers reach children at an early and impressionable age.  Females in children’s reading materials are sometimes so passive and have so little to do that they are simply colorless (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Rudman, 1984).  This lack of definition, as well as the stereotyping, of women, serves to reinforce females as less important and lets students come to understand that girls don’t have as much fun as boys, girls can’t have as many adventures as boys, and that girls need to rely on outside forces to rescue them from their problems while boys solve problems through their own cleverness and creativity (Jacklin & Mischel, 1973).

Gender Socialization Through Children’s Books

     The effect of gender bias within children’s reading materials is felt by boys and girls alike as they grow and develop in an environment rife with suggestions of inequality as the natural order.  In a subtle way over the course of childhood, partly through the books that they read, children are socialized to understand that boys are aggressive and girls are passive, boys have adventures and girls get to hear about the adventures, boys are encouraged to be independent while girls are expected to rely on boys to help them manage difficulties (Beal, 1994; Hargreaves & Colley, 1986).  Very early on, children learn that there is a social meaning to the label  boy  or  girl , and that generally  boy  conjures up more positive reactions and responses (Cahill, 1983).  This early socialization continues once the child enters school, where elementary readers, history textbooks, and math and science books reinforce society’s ideas about gender roles through written language (Olson, 1980).
    It has been variously suggested that textbooks account for anywhere from 75% to 90% of school instruction (Wooward & Elliott, 1992; Meece, 1987; Olson, 1980).  It is evident that the books children use in school play an important role in their learning.  Many of these books are filled with racial, ethnic, social class, and gender stereotypes, and influence children in negative ways.  For example, an examination of 113 recently published books for children found that dependency themes which emphasize helpless behavior for females continue to be commonly used (White, 1986).
    Even when positive changes are reported they sometimes need further examination.  For example, a 1981 analysis of basal readers found that 70% of characters in nontraditional roles were female; however, 76% of characters in traditional roles were male, suggesting that more expansion into nontraditional roles for males is needed (Scott in Meece, 1987).  More recently, a content analysis of 16 widely-used basal readers from six major publishers showed that female characters could be classified as androgynous (exhibiting a balance of traditional masculine and traditional feminine traits) for all but one of of the publishers.  Male characters in all the books, however, were never classified as androgynous and in fact rarely exhibited anything but traditional masculine behaviors (Witt, 1997).  Children themselves, when writing stories of their own, are likely to write about male characters who have a wide range of occupations and adventures, while their female characters are much more limited in their behaviors (Romantowski & Trepanier-Street, 1987).
    Looking beyond the text of children’s readers, research has shown that photographs and illustrations can serve an instructional function in those readers.  Illustrations may serve as examples or extend the content of the text (Duchastel & Waller, 1979).  In many cases, however, illustrations may be inappropriate or have no relevance to the material being presented (Woodward, 1987).  An analysis of 63 recently published textbooks found that content very often does not reflect current thinking about the issues or subjects being taught (Woodward, Elliott & Nagel, 1986).  An example of this might be books which indicate that men are primary earners in families even though female-headed, single-parent households are the fastest growing family form in the United States (Lauer & Lauer, 1994).  Because the textbooks and readers that schools purchase have potential deficiencies, both overt (illustrations which are not relevant) and covert (subtle discriminations such as those found in gender bias and stereotyping), the quality of instruction for children may be hampered for many years (Woodward, 1987).

      Most cultures use storytelling to transmit values and attitudes to children; this includes stories found in children’s readers (Kortenhaus & Demarest, 1993).  Because the books children read in school play such a potentially important defining role in their lives, it is natural to expect that the attitudes and values exhibited in them will be accepted by the children who read them.  As children grow older, they are praised and rewarded for conforming to society’s expectations of gender-stereotyped behaviors.  It has been shown that children who are exposed to books with gender stereotypic behaviors are more likely to demonstrate stereotypic behaviors (Ashton, 1983).  While there are and should be differences between the genders, a problem occurs when the attributes of one gender are deemed more valuable than the attributes of the other.

Development of a Child’s Self Concept

     In Figure 1, the socialization influences of the school are shown, including those factors related to the role played by reading materials regarding gender role development.  According to Santrock (1994), families, peer relations, the media, and school all play a major role in the development of a child’s self concept.  While parents are the primary influence on how children are socialized for their roles in our culture during the early years of life, once children enter school they are exposed to a broad range of experiences and materials.  Those learning experiences that are a part of the child’s school life, taken together, become an important component in the child’s developing sense of self (Santrock, 1994; Kaplan, 1991).

 -------------------------------Figure 1 about here--------------------------------------

     The components of school listed in the figure all play a role in the gender socialization of children.  Teachers have a particular curriculum that they follow which encompasses basic learning skills - reading, mathematics, language arts, social studies, and so on.  Assimilation occurs when children incorporate new information into their existing knowledge (Piaget, 1954).  The method of instruction used by teachers has an impact on how the information is assimilated by the child.  Teachers using gender biased methods of teaching, whether knowingly or unknowingly, such as calling on boys more frequently than girls or praising boys for achievement and girls for appearance, are helping students to assimilate gender biases.
    Also present in schools is a  hidden curriculum  which includes those learning experiences that are not always overt and that include such things as the unwritten attitudes and biases often found in the method of instruction, or in the texts of the books children read for school (Kaplan, 1991).  Another term used regarding what is learned in school is  evaded curriculum , referring to those matters which are important to the lives of students but which are touched on briefly or not at all in school.  For example, one evaded topic in schools is the issue of gender and power; others are sexual harassment, loss of self confidence and lowering of self esteem in young girls as they near adolescence, and gender role stereotyping in the curriculum (Youth Policy Institute, 1992).  It is suggested that schools would do well to address the ways that ascribed power (that based on race, class, gender) affects the individual lives of students (Youth Policy Institute, 1992).
    Of the various factors that help shape gender-typed behaviors, role models and imitation are extremely influential (Beal, 1994; Basow, 1992; Hargreaves & Colley, 1986; Bandura, 1977).  Children are exposed not only to parents but to models in the outside world - peers, teachers, television and characters in the books they read (Kaplan, 1991).  Many school materials communicate the message that females are less important than males.  Some elementary texts and children’s readers do not portray women in positive roles, nor do they show women holding major positions or performing important tasks (Shepherd-Look in Kaplan, 1991).  Because the reality of life today is that approximately half the U.S. workforce is female and that less than 10% of American families fit the traditional framework of  dad working, mom at home with
children , children need role models, including those in books, which accurately represent the world they occupy (Lauer & Lauer, 1994; Coleman, 1988).  When schools continue to use books which are gender stereotyped, they are not just condoning the attitudes present in the books, but are sanctioning and verifying those attitudes as official (Olson, 1980).  Some have suggested that the selection process for the books used in schools is entered into naively, with little critical thought given to what type of books should be chosen (Luke, Cooke & Luke, 1986).  All too often the result is books which perpetuate gender, racial and social class stereotypes.

     Many of the social problems faced in the U.S. today center around women who grow up in a system that discourages them from realizing their potential as human beings.  Single parenthood, unfulfilled goals, divorce, lack of job skills, and interrupted education are all difficulties which occur, in part, because little girls grow into young women believing in myths which are perpetuated and encouraged by their families, their peers, and the school experiences and materials they are exposed to, including the stories they read.  The white knight on the white horse who rescues the fair damsel is a notion that becomes firmly fixed in the minds of children through the literature they read.  Little girls are raised to value marriage and having children and go into these life events with the assumption that a husband (with a job) will always be in the picture.
    Young women have traditionally been more likely to put off their own education and put their husband’s schooling first because the husband’s education and career are seen as more important.  Studies have looked at the devaluation of women across a range of areas.  Some areas that have been examined are components of sexism
such as negative attitudes toward women (prejudice), beliefs about women that reinforce or involve a basic assumption of their inferiority (stereotypes), and acts of exclusion directed toward women (discrimination) (Lott, 1985).  Prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination are often found in the readers children use in school (Purcell & Stewart, 1990; St. Peter, 1979).
    Gender stereotyping begins at a very early age with parents who reinforce different behaviors and attitudes for their children based primarily on whether they are a girl or a boy.  This gender stereotyping continues with a child’s early day care or
school experience where it has been found that boys play more frequently in the block area and outdoors, while girls are more likely to sing, sew, swing and play dress up (Bloch, 1987).  As a child moves through school, attitudes toward gender and gender stereotypes are reinforced, by teachers, peers and school materials.  The books children read are a powerful influence on the values that children embrace and eventually live by.  The little girl who reads her history textbook and learns that the important figures were Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln comes to understand that women were unimportant (or at least not as important as the men) throughout history (Rudman, 1984; Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1976).  One analysis of textbooks in three states revealed that women’s contributions to history are still routinely ignored (Sadker, Sadker & Stulberg, 1993).  Cognitively developing children who are learning to read often find in their readers the same message.

Studies of Gender Bias in Children’s Books

     A 1972 content analysis of 134 elementary reading books found that males were portrayed more often, were seen in more and varied roles, and were shown as more active than females (Women on Words and Images, 1972).  This study also found that the ratio of boy-centered stories to girl-centered stories was 5 to 2; the ratio of adult male main characters to adult female main characters was 3 to 1.
    A replication of this study 18 years later found many improvements in the way females were portrayed.  However, many of the stories which were examined showed girls needing to be rescued by someone, while boys almost never had this experience. Boys were also very often shown as being forced to conceal or deny their feelings to show their manhood (Purcell & Stewart, 1990).  Male characters in children’s reading materials are frequently encouraged to aspire to individual achievement, and even when the idea of cooperation is present, it is usually in the story as an aid to winning (Tetenbaum & Pearson, 1989).  Examples of traditional masculine and feminine characteristics are found in children’s books, as evidenced by boy characters being more likely to wonder who is right and fair and girl characters questioning who needs more and how to give it (Tetenbaum & Pearson, 1989).

     A more recent analysis of sixteen basal readers from six publishers found that male characters outnumbered female characters in all 16 books, with some books having a more than two-to-one ratio of male to female characters (Witt, 1997).  This same study also found that illustrations of male characters outnumbered those of female characters in all the books.  Female characters in the books of five of the publishers were shown as having a balance of masculine and feminine traits (androgynous), but male characters in the books of all six publishers were strongly masculine (exhibiting traits such as decisiveness, leadership, independence), and rarely exhibited any traits that would be classified as traditionally feminine (gentleness, understanding, sensitivity) (Witt, 1997).

     A study of the books published for children between 1900 and 1984 found that male characters outnumbered female characters 2.7 to 1.  It was found that in the early years covered by the study (1902-1919), females appeared as title characters in children’s books more often than they did in the later years of the study.  While girls were portrayed in a more egalitarian fashion in the 1980s, women were still seen primarily in traditional family roles (Grauerholz & Pescosolido, 1989).

     During preschool and early elementary school years, children are exposed to gender stereotypes through picture books.  An analysis of 206 books for children aged 3-6 years found that males were seen as having predominately instrumental (traditionally masculine) characteristics or in instrumental activities 91% of the time and with expressive (traditionally feminine) characteristics or in expressive activities 9% of the time.  Females were shown in expressive situations or exhibiting expressive traits 79% of the time and in instrumental situations or exhibiting instrumental traits only 21% of the time (St. Peter, 1979).
    Research has shown that the stories found in children’s reading materials are a means of perpetuating fundamental cultural values and myths (Weitzman, 1977).  Fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty foster the idea of young girls only
needing to be beautiful and kind in order to have their greatest wish come true - marrying the handsome prince and living happily ever after.  This philosophy continues to be perpetuated in many of the more modern books and stories that children read.  Folktales, for example, which are frequently found in modern basal readers, have been found to have a much higher percentage of male characters than female characters (Purcell & Stewart, 1990; Weitzman, 1977).
    In their replication of the Women on Words and Images study, Purcell and Stewart (1990) found that 70% of folktales were male focused and only 30% were female focused.  Because folktales are often chosen to be included in basal readers, this contributes to the overrepresentation of males and underrepresentation of females in the books children are exposed to in school.

     Table 1 below illustrates some of the findings of six separate studies of gender bias in children’s reading materials.  These studies were conducted between 1972 and 1995.  As indicated in the table, the ratio of males to females depicted in the books analyzed, while improving from the 7 to 1 ratio found in 1972, still does not have a fair representation of female characters.  In addition, males still primarily exhibit traditional masculine traits (aggressiveness, daring, dominance) and seldom show expressive characteristics (nurturing, gentleness, empathy).  Female characters exhibit many expressive traits, although in four of the studies, it was found that females were shown as having a mixture of traditional masculine and traditional feminine traits, and thus show more of an androgynous orientation.  In only one study were males shown to exhibit a balance of masculine and feminine traits.

  ---------------------------Table 1 here-----------------------------------

     There have been many studies which have examined gender bias in children’s reading materials over the past twenty-five years; the studies listed in the table are a fair representation of some of the research conducted during the past twenty-five years.  Much of the research dealing with gender bias in readers and children’s literature has centered on frequency counts of male and female characters.  Although some recent studies have found that numbers have improved and male and female characters are found in children’s books in more equal numbers, frequently their depiction is not relevant to children’s lives or society today (Purcell & Stewart, 1990).

     Gender bias does not always occur in overt, obvious ways; it is often much more subtle.  The language used in children’s readers often emphasizes masculinity - repairman, mailman, salesman.  Women are more frequently seen as  emotional  while men are seen as  rational  (Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1976).  One suggestion for de-emphasizing the prevalence of masculinity in the language used in children’s readers is to use substitute words such as ancesters for forefathers and community instead of brotherhood (Hendrick, 1994).
    Books for children have very often limited choices and maintained gender discrimination (Purcell & Stewart, 1990; Grauerholz & Pescosolido, 1989).  Most traditional readers show females dressed in skirts or dresses, no matter what their occupations or activities.  Illustrations in children’s books have also placed women in passive observer roles while men are pictured as active (Rudman, 1984).  Studies have
frequently shown that illustrations confirm the subordinate, less valued role for females while stressing the active adventuresome role for males (Witt, 1997; Purcell & Stewart, 1990; Rudman, 1984; Weitzman, 1977).  When one objective of schools is to provide equal educational opportunities for all students, they fall short of fulfilling their goal when they use books that show limited, restricted gender role behaviors (Zimet, 1972).
    Children develop an idea of the relative worth of each of the genders very early in life with young boys often describing girls as clean, neat, quiet, gentle and fearful (Weitzman, 1977).  Hartley in 1959 reported that by the time children are four years of
age they recognize that the primary feminine role is housekeeping and the primary masculine role is wage earning.  More recent research confirms that young children continue to categorize certain behaviors and occupations strictly by gender (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Thorne, 1993).  Children’s stories which have women as characters often do not portray them in a variety of roles, instead keeping them within the family setting (Grauerholz & Pescosolido, 1989).  The books that children are exposed to in school frequently portray males as being comptetent and achievement oriented, while the image of females is that they are limited in what they do and are less competent in their ability to accomplish things (Kortenhaus & Demarest, 1993).


     This overview of literature has examined the effect of children’s reading materials on their gender role socialization.  Traditionally, male characters in children’s readers have been favored over female characters, as illustrated by the fact that there are more male characters than female, there are more biographies of males than females, there are more illustrations of males than of females.  In addition, the attitudes and behaviors of male characters are highly masculine and feed into traditional male stereotypes, with male characters rarely exhibiting even a hint of a traditional feminine behavior (Witt, 1997).  These findings have remained fairly constant through studies conducted from the early 1970s to the present time.  While there have been some improvements in how females are portrayed in children’s readers, and females are likely to be shown as having a balance of traits, the portrayal of males in readers today is much the same as it has been in the past.
     Because elementary readers play such a prominent role in children’s lives during very impressionable years, and because school and reading materials are one means of socializing children, it is important that educators make efforts to use books which are fair and unbiased toward both sexes.  However, even schools that want to make efforts to be fair sometimes have difficulty finding readers that conform to fair standards.  Publishers often state that girls will read anything while boys avoid stories that have girls as main characters (Rudman, 1984; Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1976).  Publishers justify not changing their books with the argument that it is not financially possible for them to print fair and unbiased books (Olson, 1980).  Another viewpoint, however, is that textbooks are a relatively minor part of a school’s budget, and changes could be made in the direction of choosing books which are gender fair (Altbach, 1991).  Students’ perceptions of the classroom climate, including the books they read, have much to do with how students view themselves and their belief that effort leads to success.  Schools encourage students to have learning goals and objectives.  The readers that students use play an important role in helping students reach those goals, by showing children ways to view themselves and their place in the world.
    Mastery goals focus on the intrinsic value of learning, and thus encourage students to improve their level of competence based on self-referenced standards (Ames, 1992).  When those self-referenced standards are based on information that is gender biased, male and female students alike are short-changed and sometimes are not able to reach maximum potential. To have a fair and unbiased society, it is vital that parents and teachers make efforts to socialize children in a fair way.  Ensuring that children have access to gender fair reading materials during their school years is one small but important step in the direction of that fair society.

 Altbach, P. (1991). Textbooks in American society: Politics, policy, and pedagogy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

 Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 261-271.

 American Association of University Women (1989). Equitable treatment of girls and boys in the classroom. American Association of University Women, June, 1-6.

 Ashton, E. (1983). Measures of play behavior: The influence of sex role stereotyped children’s books. Sex Roles, 9, 43-47.

 Baennenger, M. & Newcombe, N. (1989). The role of experience in spatial text performance: A meta analysis. Sex Roles, 20, 327-343.

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