Children’s books are an early source of gender knowledge

Children’s books are an early source of gender knowledge

First Author: Ellen Converse -- University of Wisconsin-Madison
Additional authors/chairs: 
Molly Lewis; Matt Cooper Borkenhagen; Gary Lupyan; Mark Seidenberg
Keywords: Development, semantic learning, Print Exposure, Book Reading
Abstract / Summary: 

Reading books to children provides an important early language experience, differing substantially from child-directed speech (Montag, Jones, and Smith, 2015). These texts provide information about the world, one important aspect of which is gender and its associated characteristics. We present analyses of the gender semantics in a large corpus of children’s books (birth to 5 years old). Multiple measures indicate that books convey substantial gender-related information, varying greatly in the degree of gender loading based on words they contain. A corpus of 250 children’s books was created to examine their language, including gender semantics. Books were text-transcribed and catalogued yielding a large database of words (N = 181,225). Adult participants rated the words’ gender relatedness on a scale of maleness to femaleness (0 to 5), acquired for at least 50% of the words in each book (n = 2500). Words’ gender ratings exhibited variation approximating a normal distribution (M = 3, min = 1, max = 5, SD = .63). Average gender loading of each book was calculated as the mean of all its words (M = 2.99, SD = 0.19, min = 2.46, max = 3.86). Examples: highly female, OLIVIA, GOODNIGHT MOON; highly male, DEAR ZOO, CURIOUS GEORGE; neutral, PAT THE BUNNY. Independently acquired norms of gender loadings of words suggest that the text contained in children’s books varies systematically with regard to gendered content. This suggests that child-directed text is a meaningful source of cultural transmission of gender semantics and gender identity early on in development.