Why do we need more female role-models?

A disturbing video is doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment, showing a mother and daughter systematically going through the selection of children’s books in a local bookshop, highlighting the disproportionately low number of children’s books that have female characters who actually speak and who have aspirations beyond meeting a handsome prince.

What I find disturbing is not so much the video itself – ‘misleading’ would be a better description of that – but the fact that so many of my friends, among whom I grew up and with whom I went to school, are sharing it and commenting on how accurate it is.


Did we not read the same books growing up?

Just a few books I remember reading as a child, are listed below. Every single one of these contains at least one female character, often the lead character, who not only speaks but in most cases has plenty of ambition, guts and sense of adventure far beyond meeting and marrying a prince.

  • Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
  • What Katy Did (also What Katy did at School and What Katy Did Next) – by Susan Coolidge
  • The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
  • Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild)
  • White Boots (again, Noel Streatfeild)
  • Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery)
  • Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
  • The Malory Towers books by Enid Blyton; also the Naughtiest Girl books, the Magic Faraway Tree, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (the narrator, Scout, is a young girl and the entire book is devoted to her account of events)
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

Yes, I also read plenty of books in which the main character was male but so what?  I was brought up with a love of reading and it never occurred to me – nor was I encouraged – to question the gender of the main character; the point of reading lots of books with varied characters is to broaden a child’s imagination and enable her or him to see the world through the experiences and adventures of the characters within. It frankly astounds and appalls me that presumably well-intentioned adults are encouraging young girls to believe that they are disadvantaged from a young age just because an analysis of the characters in a selection of children’s books does not reveal a significant proportion of strong female roles.

I remember devouring Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Kane and Abel’ as a teenager (yes, I read a lot of trashy novels once I moved on from children’s classics) and being extraordinarily impressed by the rags-to-riches tale of Abel Rosnovski, one of the central characters. Nowhere do I recall a suggestion that he could only have enjoyed such success due to being male – in my mind it was simply a tale of hard work and perseverance, and his success could easily be matched by anybody willing to put in the same effort.

Going back to the video, let’s talk about some of the underlying research referred to within.  The footnotes to the video mention the ‘100 greatest children’s books of all time’ published by Time Magazine, in which apparently ‘only 53 had females that speak’. Well, I looked up Time Magazine’s 100 greatest children’s books of all time, and quite frankly I’ve never heard of most of them.   I’d be interested to know how many of these books have males that speak – with titles such as “The Day the Crayons Quit”, “Rain Makes Applesauce” and “Everyone Poops” it seems pretty likely that a fair few of them don’t have any gendered characters at all, so it’s pretty disingenuous to point out that ‘only 53% have females that speak’ without providing the corresponding figures for males.

The video also makes reference to ‘seejane.org Occupational Aspirations’ – which is used to back up the claim that ‘across children’s media, only 19.5% of female characters hold jobs or have career aspirations, vs 80.5% of male characters’. Well, I Googled that particular research paper, which it turns out is based on an analysis of 21 films released between September 2006 and September 2009. Not exactly an extensive survey, then. And nothing to do with the books that are available to children.

I have spent the past 20 years working in investment banking, an extremely male-dominated environment, and I have worked with, and been mentored by, some very good managers, both male and female.   I have also had some pretty appalling managers of both genders.   The advice and support I have received has differed from one manager to another based on each manager’s individual style, personality and experience, as well as on the role in question, but I would not categorise any of that advice as having been tailored based on either my gender or that of the manager.  And while I can only speak for myself, I can quite confidently say that I have learned just as much from, and felt just as supported by, my male managers and colleagues as those who are female.

If girls are to grow up to be confident, successful women they need to be able to work and interact equally well with men as with other women. Rather than encouraging young girls to focus on whether their role models are male or female, should we not simply encourage them to focus on what makes a person a role model in the first place?   And if you really want girls not to feel that they are held back by a lack of female role-models, for heaven’s sake stop telling them that they are.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with this marvellous cartoon which doesn’t quite illustrate my point but does do a marvellous job of highlighting the absurdity of so much ‘feminist’ rhetoric – and most importantly, always makes me laugh.

cartoon princess male chauvinist slay my own dragon

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