The best way to change gendered reading habits

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Danielle Binks

"How can we get better recognition for women writers and their works, and finally put an end to the idea of 'girl books' ...

"How can we get better recognition for women writers and their works, and finally put an end to the idea of 'girl books' and 'boy books'?", asks Danielle Binks. Photo: Stocksy

Do reading challenges designed to promote female authors really help in changing gendered reading habits?

Earlier this year, author K.T. Bradford challenged people to 'Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors For One Year,' and instead only read stories by women or people of colour or LGBTQIA writers. Bradford's challenge was not the first time such a gauntlet has been thrown down: Lilit Marcus did a similar self-imposed challenge in 2013; last year, The Guardian helped promote writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh's hashtag #readwomen2014 campaign; and there was also Global Women Of Color's website, which encouraged reading and discussions of books written only by women of colour. (Marcus later wrote about accusations of "reverse sexism" and misandry she copped over social media, suggesting that for all the positive responses she received there were still those who didn't understand even the basic fundamentals of unconscious bias.)

Reading challenges at least keep the conversation around literary sexism going – because such discussions often only crop up at certain times of year (like when VIDA: Women in Literary Arts statistics or the Stella Count are released), or if there's a big enough controversy to remind people of the ongoing issue – but are they really having much of an impact on unconscious bias and gendered reading habits?

The six titles featured on the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist - the winner will be announced on April 21.

The six titles featured on the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist - the winner will be announced on April 21. Photo: Stella Prize

Statistics don't lie, and there's little doubt that a cultural change is needed in our literary landscape – women writers should be better represented as winners of literary prizes and in the literary pages of our mainstream arts media, all of which will lead to them selling more books and receiving better recognition all round. And the best way to address these changes is at the institutional level in our schools – by stamping out gendered reading habits and addressing unconscious bias in our younger generations.

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The Stella Prize Schools Program (SPSP) was founded in 2014 for the purpose of affecting this cultural change at the curriculum level, by lobbying for more women writers to be represented on school reading lists. SPSP is another dimension to The Stella Prize – the $50,000 literary award that celebrates Australian women's writing, and which was first awarded in 2013. Aviva Tuffield is Executive Director of the Stella Prize, and she says that, "In terms of changing the culture of the future, curriculum change is slow and it does seem that in some ways we're slipping back: when some of the classics by women are taken off, they are often replaced by something more contemporary written by a man."

Even a cursory glance at the senior Reading Lists of every state reflect this imbalance: texts set by the Board of Studies for the New South Wales Higher School Certificate (HSC) starting in 2015 show that male authors make up at least 70% of the new curriculum – which is destined to stay in place until the year 2020. Last year, 70% of books on the VCE list were also by male authors, and even looking back at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) Reading List from my graduating year, I'm horrified to see the same imbalance – which shows that there's been little progress in 10 years.

"It's important for girls and boys to have a wide representation of voices and experiences," says Tuffield, "both to see themselves reflected in the books they read and study, but also to be exposed to others' lives and experiences. Gender stereotypes limit us all, male and female."

The Stella Prize Schools Program is designed for girls and boys in Years 7 to 12, and involves school visits, workshops, teaching notes and a wider mission of lobbying for better representation of women writers on reading lists. The Program – as an extension of the Prize – is really trying to dismantle the subliminal messaging that comes when students are taught that it's mostly men who write the "classics", and female authors aren't worthy of study simply because they don't appear as often on the syllabus.

"If women miss out on the major literary prizes and receive less media coverage and fewer reviews, they are much less likely to be chosen for curriculum lists," explains Tuffield. "The books that win prizes and get taught to the next generations both become part of the Australian canon and shape our culture and society in the future, so it's important."

The Stella Schools Program is concentrated on a cultural shift in secondary schools, but parents and teachers should still be getting involved in combating gendered reading habits in children of all ages, especially at the primary school level.

One common excuse heard again and again for the lack of diversity in younger children's reading is the old myth that "girls will read books with male and female protagonists, but boys are only interested in reading about boys" - which is just so wrong. For starters, at the very core of that thinking is an assumption that girls are just naturally more compassionate, thoughtful and empathetic than boys – and that's complete codswallop that pays a disservice to boys becoming decent human beings capable of emotional intelligence. If you buckle to that kind of thinking (instead of encouraging them to read books written by women and with female protagonists), you're also sending the message to young boys that girls' stories aren't important, that girls aren't important.

Admittedly, the gender-division marketing of children's books hasn't always helped to end these gendered reading habits, with publishers often perpetuating the myth of "boy books" and "girl books". For the record – stories are for everyone, they have no gender. If you're looking to buy books for children, don't go into a bookstore or your local library asking where the girl's books section is because any children's book specialist will tell you it's all the books.

We should be questioning the books that young people are being taught in the classroom. The answer isn't in the exclusion of voices, but rather the inclusion – so open up a dialogue with teachers and school librarians, ask them to consider the books they're giving children and who they're written by, and help end gendered reading habits once and for all.

The winner of the 2015 Stella Prize will be announced on Tuesday 21 April.

Danielle Binks is a book reviewer on Alpha Reader, and one of Melbourne Writers Festival's '30 Under 30: Next Generation of Writers'. You can tweet her at @danielle_binks.