Research / BFI Working PaperSep 16, 2022

Tales and Tropes: Gender Roles from Word Embeddings in a Century of Children’s Books

Anjali Adukia, Patricia Chiril, Callista Christ, Anjali Das, Alex Eble, Emileigh Harrison, Hakizumwami Birali Runesha

The manner in which gender is portrayed in materials used to teach children conveys messages about people’s roles in society. In this paper, we measure the gendered depiction of central domains of social life in 100 years of highly influential children’s books. We make two main contributions: (1) we find that the portrayal of gender in these books reproduces traditional gender norms in society, and (2) we publish StoryWords 1.0, the first word embeddings trained on such a large body of children’s literature. We find that, relative to males, females are more likely to be represented in relation to their appearance than in relation to their competence; second, they are more likely to be represented in relation to their role in the family than their role in business. Finally, we find that non-binary or gender-fluid individuals are rarely mentioned. Our analysis advances understanding of the different messages contained in content commonly used to teach children, with immediate applications for practice, policy, and research.

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