Comment: Female sensibilities will be the undoing of kids' books? I don't think so.

Eight-year-old Bentje reads a children's boom in Pokrent, Germany, 21 April 2008. (EPA)

Are women the wolves in sheep’s clothing of children’s literature?

A familiar argument has once again started to bubble in publishing circles. There are too many women in publishing. In the latest public debate, author Jonathan Emmett has come out with a 24 page report stating he believes boys are being deterred from reading because the ‘gatekeepers’ to children’s literature are mostly women. He feels so strongly about the issue that he’s started an entire website to campaign for better books for boys, which he thinks aren’t being made due to  “a culture of emasculation surrounding the picture book industry”.

And of course Emmett isn’t alone in mounting this argument, he’s merely one in a line of men feeling put out by their failure to dominate the modern publishing industry. Author and editor Jason Pinter took to the Huffington Post to share his view that the female-dominated editorial teams just don’t get what boys and men want to read. Then there’s ‘Agent Orange’, who bemoans the “virtual monoculture” of women in publishing houses, wondering “just how enthusiastic can female colleagues get about strongly masculine subjects?” a situation he says has led to a decline in the great blockbuster men of literature such as John le Carre, Jack Higgins or Wilbur Smith, saying “one struggles to think of too many new names that have come along to replace them”. Strange, considering the slew of coverage that male authors achieve in the literary world.

So are women overrepresented in the publishing industry? Yes. Undoubtedly there are a greater proportion of women working as editors than men. As this report from America’s Publishers Weekly showed, 85% of employees with fewer than three years of experience were women, but amoung those with 20 years of experience or more only 54% were women. Publishing is a gendered field; a term in sociology meaning when an industry becomes associated with the dominant sex in the field the other sex inadvertently stays away.

“Does having more women working in publishing really harm the environment for male (particularly young male) readers?”

The issue isn’t that these men are pointing out the gender disparity; it is the sometimes absurd conclusions these commentators are drawing. Does having more women working in publishing really harm the environment for male (particularly young male) readers? Emmett would have us believe so: “I hope I’ve demonstrated, one of the chief reasons that boys as young as five years old find reading far less enjoyable than girls of the same age is that the picture books they are offered are commissioned, reviewed, selected and purchased according to overwhelmingly female sensibilities.”

Are these female editors incapable of producing books for boys? Even if women outnumber men in the ranks of editors and the halls of publishing houses, a large scale study of over 6,000 children’s books showed that boys are far more represented on the pages of books than girls, with almost twice as many male characters than female found in books published between 1900-2000. And in ‘gender neutral’ animal books? Three times as many boy animals than girls, with researchers stating “One thing that surprised us is that females' representations did not consistently improve from 1900 to 2000; in the mid part of the century it was actually more unequal. Books became more male dominated.”  A male character can be found in 37.5% of book titles, versus 17.5% female.

Stories about boys, written for the boys that Emmett himself claims will be more attracted to reading about male characters, abound in bookstores and libraries. The author calls for male protagonists, saying “it may seem like stating the obvious, but it’s not been obvious to some of the picture book publishers I’ve worked with”, saying “while I’m all for challenging sexual stereotypes, the traffic is overwhelmingly one-way in the world of picture books”, where he thinks there is too much pressure to include female characters. If we take his assertion that children are more likely to read books with protagonists of their own sex, female editors and publishers are in fact providing more stories about and for boys than they are for girls.  So is it not the case then, if most books feature male protagonists and children are more likely to read stories featuring the same gender as themselves, that it might be girls we’re letting down?

“I hope I’ve demonstrated, one of the chief reasons that boys as young as five years old find reading far less enjoyable than girls of the same age is that the picture books they are offered are commissioned, reviewed, selected and purchased according to overwhelmingly female sensibilities,” writes Jonathan Emmett.

This misguided assumption is reflected in this comprehensive report from the UK; “some practitioners also felt that this lack of interesting materials is the result of the publishing industry, which is often seen as catering more girls’ interests than boys”. While this might be “seen” to be the case, it’s not difficult to find statistics refuting this point of view. Many blockbuster book series feature male protagonists, including the ubiquitous Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Alex Rider.

The report also goes on to say “some respondents felt quite strongly that boys are being disadvantaged [because] reading may be perceived as a stereotypical pastime owing to the fact that many primary and English teachers are female”, meaning boys find reading a feminised activity because so many educators are female. Yet as the research finds “a teacher’s gender was unrelated to children’s educational attainment or attitudinal outlook”. Again, the perception of the issue is refuted by data, and yet the perception still somehow wins out. These perceptions are like the old wives’ tales that won’t quit. No matter how many facts you offer to refute them, people keep treating them as if they are true.

Offering appropriately engaging titles is certainly one of the recommendations from the report, but others – offering male reading role models, establishing reading habits in early childhood – are far more heavily weighted.

Emmett and co are also conveniently ignoring the blatant realities of the publishing world. While many editorial staff are women, men are overrepresented when it comes to winning awards or heading up publishing companies.

“Women are relegated to working in children’s publishing because, like many other services or industries, books for children are considered lightweight, easier, less important.”

He points out that on the 2012 panel of the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction there is only one male librarian in the panel of 13, and goes on to assert “it can be assumed that no one has ever won the Carnegie by appealing to the little boys that the panellists once were”. Really? How about the statistics showing the similarly prestigious Caldecott Award winners are usually men (63% male winners, 37% female). Or this comprehensive list of awards which shows men dominate the charts and the top prizes?

A comprehensive analysis of recent changes at the upper echelons of publishing houses worldwide can be found in this article, where it is noted that there has been a dramatic shift in the bigger players towards men in CEO publishing positions  “For those alarmed about the masculinisation of the British book trade… the suddenness of the change is startling – from 2000 to 2012 three of the big four British publishers were overseen by women. In the Guardian's Book Power 100 list two years ago, [female CEO] Rebuck was ranked ninth and [fellow female CEO] Barnsley fifteenth, and Rebuck took 10th place in Radio 4's Woman's Hour power list for 2013. Now, arguably, there are none.” The situation is summed up nicely by an “anonymous industry insider” who says, “Most of editorial in publishing is female and over the last decade women have been running things. Suddenly it's still mostly women, but it's men at the top.”

It is clear that even when women make up the majority of the workforce in an industry, sexism and inequality still abound. The Publishers Weekly report highlighted the fact that despite holding a majority of the jobs, women in publishing were paid an astonishing $40,000 less than their male counterparts in the US. It is a prime example of a field where a ‘feminised’ industry is paid woefully, as is the case with similarly gendered fields such as teaching or social work. While there are no statistics on exactly how many women work in publishing in Australia, we do know that women make up 49.7% of the workforce in arts and recreation services, yet account for a paltry 3.3% of CEOs.

It’s the same circumstances that see women overrepresented in teaching, yet underrepresented as school principals. In NSW 80% of primary school teachers are female and yet only 56% of principals are women. In high schools 56% of women holding teaching positions, with 38% principals.

The situation is echoed in other publishing environments. In digital publishing there is close to gender parity, and yet most of the more high profile experts in the field are men. Women in academic publishing fields such as political sciences are underrepresented, and the data shows that even in academic publishing women are indeed least represented in more serious areas such as economics, but achieve closer parity in ‘softer’ academic areas such as sociology. Scholarly publishing also suffers from the glass ceiling. There are plenty of women editing, but few making it to the top of their field, particularly in more ‘serious’ arenas.

So why are there so many women working in children’s publishing, or conversely, so few men? Might it be that men are not attracted to jobs in publishing, particularly in children’s books? Emmett himself is willing to concede this point, saying, “I don’t think that the scarcity of men working in picture book publishing is a result of anti-male employment discrimination within the industry. Men simply don’t seem as interested as women in publishing books for the very young, in the same way that men seem less interested in teaching the very young in our schools.”

Certainly there is a lack of interest by men, but surely it goes further than this. Women are relegated to working in children’s publishing because, like many other services or industries, books for children are considered lightweight, easier, less important. Like their counterparts in academic publishing, women are found in higher concentrations in ‘soft’ pockets. Their expertise is first and foremost as women, mothers, carers. They are certainly qualified to lend this expertise to publishing for children, but when it comes to high end literature there are men jostling to work on the serious stuff, the award winning, publicly recognized artistry of literature.

Or how about the argument that men who are attracted to literature and writing actually write books, where women who are attracted to writing work on the books men write? Emmett touches on this issue unwittingly in his own argument, stating, “While there are many men, such as myself, writing and illustrating picture books, the overwhelming majority of commissioning decisions are made by women”. When men choose to show an interest in children’s publishing, they are far more frequently found as authors and illustrators, the central creative figure in the project. The one that wins awards and reaps the financial gains from successful projects. In genre publishing there is similarly a healthy representation of women working in publishing houses, and yet Tor UK (the Pan Macmillan imprint specializing in science fiction, fantasy and horror) cites only 32% of their submissions are from female writers.

So what should be done about this dire state of affairs according to Emmett? “Encourage more men to take up commissioning positions within the industry ... It wouldn’t hurt to let me know that they are needed”. Since when have men needed an invitation to dominate workplaces? It’s no coincidence that the only professional fields not dominated by men are those poorest paid and poorest regarded.

It would be lovely to see an impassioned plea such as Emmett’s, where he says “most of you would accept that closing the gender gap is more important than maximizing your company’s profit margins” be applied to the overwhelmingly reversed discrimination faced by women writers in his field and more widely within the industry. But no. His belief that profits and sales shouldn’t come before gender equality only applies to the one very narrow count where women are statistically overrepresented. As the support teams to making men’s creative work come to life.

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