Monday, 15 February 2010

The Gender Gap

It's impossible to spend much time writing for children before you notice the massive discrepancy between men and women; writers, agents, editors - women greatly outnumber men at all levels of the industry. Does this give us a vision of what life would be like in a matriarchal society? And is that such a bad thing? I've been procrastinating on this subject for months, lest it get me into trouble, but here goes anyway...

I don't want this to become one of those I'm not a sexist, but... posts. I can't help being male, but beyond that I don't really have an axe to grind. In fact, being a man writing books for boys does give me something of a USP. I'm used to being outnumbered by women (I have a wife and two daughters) and I generally find it easier to get on with women than men.

The key question I have is what effect the female domination of the industry has on the kind of books that are being written and published for children, especially boys. We hear all the time that boys are falling behind in general literacy - you can read more about this at the National Literacy Trust. Is there an unconscious bias towards the sort of books that girls would find appealing? Surely the industry must be happy to shift product to anyone who wants it?

The fact that so many more women want to write or edit for children isn't particularly surprising or suspicious - you only have to walk into any primary school in the country to see the gender bias of working with children. Whether this is because the hours are easier to fit around the teachers' own families, or because of some genetic urge to nurture, or a reinforcement of traditional gender roles - well, I leave you to comment on that. Given the historically lower wages for women in this country, it can be less financially punitive for a woman to give up work to pursue her publishing dreams than a man. On the other hand, lots of women stay in full time work and manage to write in their spare time, and lots of men get to 'house husband' while scribbling in the shed.

I'm sure any female agent or editor would hotly contest any accusation that they are selecting titles based on gender bias. Their job is to appeal to the widest range of readers, after all. An additional argument is that there's a glass ceiling in the publishing industry - like many others - and that a lot of the top jobs are still held by men, and that they are the ones who ultimately approve or reject a particular title.

Nonetheless, the market is clearly skewed, most noticeably at the Young Adult level. There are some writers like Charlie Higson or Anthony Horowitz who sell very well to teenage boys, but the majority of this market's customers are girls. Video games are constantly blamed for distracting young male readers, but all the girls I know are obsessed by games as well - it just doesn't stop them being engrossed by books too.

In the end, I wonder if this all comes down to supply and demand. Adult women read more books, so they are more likely to want to write and publish them. Similarly, girls - especially teenagers - are more voracious readers, so it makes sense for publishers to feed that market.

Maybe what's needed here is not so much a change of personnel, but rather a change in our perception regarding what boys are capable of. A Booktrust survey last year found that parents and carers of boys were twice as likely not to read with them compared to those who have girls.

Your thoughts please...



  1. I do agree! Although I have two boys (one who's nearly 5 and one who's 10 weeks old) and I read with him every night before bedtime, because it's important he understands the signicance of reading, either for recereation or educational reasons...but yes, it seems a little thin on the ground when it comes to boys literature.

    I think its 'better the devil you know'! And with publishing being about sales figures there's no wonder they play it girlies are a sure bet!!

    Which is a shame because my next novel is going to be focused around boys! I so want to get into the brain of a boy and release my inhibitants when it comes to bodily functions..(Am I being sterotypical here?)

    Great Article,
    Best Karen

  2. Wow I can't believe that boys are half as likely to be read too, that's outrageous, and maybe contributes to the problem.
    I guess my family was odd, I had three brothers and my eldest brothers collection of sci-fi was way bigger than my book collection. They all still read and two of them have attempted writing.

    Are you including comics and graphic novels in this?

  3. Dear Nick,

    I enjoyed reading your post. I'm in a sort of mirror image situation to you - being female, but having a husband and three sons. I grew up with two brothers and no sisters, and have a wonderful father.

    Therefore, when it came to try my hand at fiction, it seemed natural to me to write from a male perspective, and my two narrators are 14 year-old boys. I have tried to write an intelligent novel, a survival story based on true events, with excitement and action but also emotional depth - something a bit different to what's on the market already. However, I have been warned by one agent who chose not to see the full ms that although well written, this book may be hard to sell. It seems that what publishers want at the moment is more thrillers, more horror and more fantasy. A bit frustrating and limiting for boy readers in my opinion.

    Am about to send to two other agents who have requested to see the full - am hoping they'll be more positive - but have to admit I'm fearful that the recession has led to a narrowing of the sort of books being offered to boys. Surely there's more than one sort of boy out there - and we should be catering to a wide range of interests and broadening their minds, rather than only offering more of the same.

    Best wishes,


  4. You have to sit still to read a book and there in lies the problem.....another interesting post Nick, thanks...

  5. It's bothered me for years that young boys are brought up in such a female world. If they don't happen to have live-in fathers, and many don't, the chances are that they won't come across any positive male role models unless and until they join football clubs, begin apprenticeships, or start work, there being so few men in the teaching profession these days.

    And I'm sure the female dominance of the publishing industry (and you're absolutely right to point it out, Nick) doesn't help. I'm struck by the few believable male leads there are in fiction and the extent to which, even books with a male lead, are really written for girls. I'm currently reading Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, and don't get me wrong, it's a great read. But it has a male lead who I cannot think of as anuthing more than a female in male body. This guy is on the basket ball team, he eats like a horse and he's fallen head over heels for the heroine, but all his sensibilities are female. Here's how he describes a girl at the school winter dance: '... looked like a silver and peach-filled cream puff, plucked and primped and puckered into taffeta.' A wonderful desciption - yes, but it just doesn't sound like a sixteen year old boy (sorry, but do you know any boys who even know what taffeta is?) and that's typical of the whole book.

    Now this has just been published and if it's how publishers want boys to be portrayed then I'm not surprised boys don't want to read their books.

  6. My impression for a long time has been that publishers are desperate for better material for boys - schools certainly are and they make up a massive chunk of the market for children's books. So I would guess that - as with primary school teachers males are in high demand! Having said that, when I recently listed my favourite children's authors I was chastised (by my dad!) for having no females on the list..
    On the subject of boys' enthusiasm for reading, I think it says a lot that boys only get read to half as often as girls. My five year old nephew is already a book addict, taking after his father, grandfather and auntie. He is read to by all of us often and his dad reads to him every night (his mother is Thai and struggles with English pronunciation).
    So perhaps we should be starting a 'read to your sons' campaign...

  7. I think Kathy's hit on something with her comment. If it was just a question of us treating boys differently it would be easy for us correct. But I suspect its a lot more complex than that.