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Monday, February 20, 2012

Women and the Caldecott, Part II: More Musings About the Gender Gap

By Carol Baicker-McKee
This post includes images of a few of the books illustrated by women and published in 2011 that were noted as distinguished for illustrations - only not by this year's Caldecott committee.
Illustrated by Pamela Dalton. Chronicle Books, 2011. Watercolored cut paper illustrations.
Note: This post is a follow-up to one I wrote recently: Why Don't Women Illustrators Win Caldecott Awards? and to last week's post by Cynthia Light Brown: Caldecott, CEOs and Confidence.

Bear with me for a few minutes: I'm opening with a story that at first glance may seem off-topic, but which I promise to connect.

In the mid-1980s when I taught psychology at a community college, I began units on gender topics with a couple classroom surveys. First I asked my students 15 questions about their real or future/hypothetical daughters, ranging from "Would you dress your infant daughter in blue?" through "Would you support and encourage your eight-year-old daughter if she wanted to switch from ballet lessons to playing baseball ?" to "Would you feel proud of your adult daughter for pursuing a traditionally male career like physics teacher or police officer?"

The results of  my informal survey were remarkably consistent (if not rigorously scientific). Nearly all the students (who ranged in age from 18 to early 70s, with most in their 20s) thought it was good or at least acceptable for females to take on male gender roles.

After a short discussion in which my students generally agreed that attitudes about women's roles had improved, I gave the quiz again.

Only this time with a small twist.

I asked them to think about their real or future/hypothetical sons with questions ranging from "Would you dress your infant son in pink?" through "Would you support and encourage your eight-year-old son if he wanted to switch from playing baseball to taking ballet lessons?" to "Would you feel proud of your adult son for pursuing a traditionally female career like preschool teacher or social worker?"
The results were very different. Most (though not all) of my students were uncomfortable with the idea of allowing or encouraging their sons to adopt any traditionally feminine characteristics or activities.

When time permitted, I followed up by asking the questions one more time, in the gender-traditional way (e.g., would you dress your daughter in pink, son in blue, etc.) and few students ever balked at allowing/encouraging traditional roles.

In other words, my students felt it was okay for girls to act like girls, boys to act like boys and girls to act like boys - but not good for boys to act like girls. Got that?
Red Sled by Lita Judge (2011) Watercolor and pencil. A fun romp with minimal text and remarkable design as well as graphically strong illustrations
This classroom exercise came to mind recently as I've continued to mull over possible reasons for the gap in Caldecott Medals. I'll let you noodle its possible implications for a few minutes while I discuss some other thoughts. 

In addition to doing some wondering of my own, I've talked with a variety of interested parties, including other writers and illustrators I know, librarians, teachers, parents, kids, and folks who commented on my earlier post, seeking their guesses about what's going on. I also read a number of discussions about it around the internet. Some of the more active and lively discussions of this issue can be found in the following places:
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet in richly layered collage/assemblage and water color technique that is particularly appropriate for this subject. It received a Siebert Award for most distinguished informational book - but no Caldecott.

Here then, in no particular order, are some of the other thoughts on the issue that I've come across or considered.

Is there Really a Gender Gap?
Several bloggers or commenters have suggested that the basic premise is wrong: there isn't really a gender gap - just one of those statistical things that gives an illusion of a gap. For example, one commentor on the child_lit forums asserted that the problem was a small "n" - not enough data points since we only have 75 medals to consider.

Others said that the proportion of women winners has gone up and down and just because we are in a low point right now, doesn't mean that overall there's a real gender gap.

I'm confident, though, that there is a real gender gap. I think 75 data points is sufficient to discern a trend, especially one as unequivocal as this (not quite as unequivocable as the gender gap in U.S. presidents, but still...). Although the proportion of female winners has varied from decade to decade, in seven full decades women have never captured even half of the medals - 4 of the 10 is the best ever, and that has happened only twice and it's been a while (in the 1960s and 1970s). Plus things have been much worse recently - only 2 women winners in the 1990s and 1 in the 2000s. But you can draw your own conclusions: at the end of this post I have listed all the female Caldecott winners by decade.
Stunning illustrations in innovative retelling (by illustrator's son) of classic tale in soft watercolor. Reviewers also noted book's outstanding design and typography in starred reviews. Burkert earlier received a Caldecott Honor but has never won the medal despite consistent acclaim for her work. Makes a nice pairing with Pinkney's beautiful Caldecott Medal winner The Lion and the Mouse (2009) for different perspectives on the same tale.

Does the Gap Reflect Male-Female Differences in Self-Confidence?
If you haven't already, please read Cynthia Light Brown's thoughtful - and thought-provoking - post (here) about how males typically have an excess of confidence in their abilities while females underestimate their abilities. I find much of her thesis dovetails with my own personal experiences as well as with other research I've seen on gender gaps in many endeavors. 

My first thought was that it's great to think about this as a primary source of the problem, confidence is a changeable trait, and thus this gender gap is mutable. But then I remembered studies like this classic one by the organization Catalyst about the double-bind for women in leadership roles; if women are not assertive, they aren't rewarded as well as assertive men. Unfortunately, assertive women aren't rewarded either; they're just viewed as pushy. You know, in that witch-with-a-capital-B way. So it becomes a no-win situation.
I wonder if it works that way in children's publishing too. What do you think?

Should Librarians on the Caldecott Make More of an Effort to Close the Gap?
Janice Haryda on her blog One Minute Book Reviews says YES!  Just to be clear, she isn't asserting a conscious effort to discriminate against women, just that there must be some institutionalized bias driving Caldecott committees to reward men at a much higher rate, given that most other award organizations are able to identify plenty of outstanding books by female illustrators each year. Nor is she saying that they should lower their standards; she cites outstanding books by female illustrators she feels have been unnecessarily passed over. What she wants to do is make the committees notice their biases so that they can overcome them when warranted.

Many of the librarians I spoke with were surprised at the gender discrepancy; they'd never conciously paid attention to the gender of the winners. But I sensed that they were uncomfortable to discover the trend.

I wonder if these discussions will prompt future committees to be more aware of gender. (Or perhaps of race and ethnic identity as well: see Janice's  post on the racial gap in Caldecott winners too.

Is It Condescending to Female Illustrators Who've Won or Mean-Spirited toward Male Winners and Caldecott Committees to Talk About This Gap?
I must confess this reaction (by the author-husband of a past female winner who commented on Janice's post, as well as another commentor) startled me. First I'm genuinely bewildered about how the discussion could be seen as condescending toward women who have won. Second, I don't think it's automatically mean-spirited to raise uncomfortable issues; indeed I think people involved in children's literature are obligated to consider them.

Personally, I also didn't consider Janice's language to be anything more than blunt and perhaps a shade tough. And given not only how long this gap has persisted but how it has worsened, perhaps some blunt, tough language is needed to capture people's attention and to motivate change.
Another gem by the talented and prolific Patricia Polacco. Her distinctive pencil and watercolor illustrations and creative texts have garnered her many awards, including a Caldecott Honor - but never the medal.

Does The Gap Matter to Anyone Except Female Illustrators?
I say yes. Ultimately the gap matters most not to the winners or losers of the awards, but to the audiences who read those books - and to the wider society.

And Finally, That Brings Me Back to My Original Story!
What my surveys showed me - and quite frankly I was shocked even then - is that in general, our society devalues feminine characteristics, strengths, interests. I hope that those attitudes have changed in the last 25 years or so, but I'm guessing they've changed less than I'd like.
I do suspect there are some actual differences in how male and female artists illustrate children's books. (If anyone out there knows about an analysis of content, style, etc., I'd love to review it). I also suspect that the differences are in reality smaller and harder to detect than the gender gap would lead us to believe (and I wonder what would happen to the gender gap if it were possible to carry out the illustration and award processes in a gender blind way). But at the same time, I would not be surprised to learn that men and women generally approached book illustration with different visions and different aims. 

In my searches the last couple weeks, I've seen/heard suppositions that in general, work by women is more domestic in theme and content, softer, quieter, more conventional and more often aimed at younger audiences, while work by men is more often ground-breaking, exciting, silly, engaging, and aimed at older audiences.

Does it strike you, as it did me, that these descriptions mirror the traits assigned to traditional parenting styles of mothers versus fathers?

Do these proposed differences seem accurate to you? And do you think the female approach is less good? Does it seem like female winners (especially recent ones) are more "male" in their approach?
More to Think About
  •  Should future Caldecott committees take the gender of the illustrator into account when making their selection(s)? If so, how?
  • Should there be a separate award for best illustration by a woman? (I reflexively don't like the idea, but...)
  • What makes book illustration distinguished?
  • What advice would you give an illustrator who wants to increase her chances of winning the Caldecott?
  • Should the Caldecott even award a medal for "best"? Many other illustration awards select a list of outstanding, with no one title singled out.
  • Should book buyers give so much weight to Caldecott winners?
Women Who Have Won the Caldecott (By Decade)
I have marked women who co-won with their illustrator husbands with an asterisk and counted each as 1/2 in my totals for the decades. Also, the first time  an illustrator is listed, clicking on her name will link either to her website or to a page about her.
A couple other notes: Marcia Brown has won the Medal three times, Barbara Cooney and Nonny Hogrogian have won twice on their own; Diane Dillon has won twice with her husband. In total in the 75 years of the Medal, 15 women solo illustrators have the award  and an additional 5 have one as part of husband-wife team. You can see the full list of Medal and Honor winners here.

2010s [Only 3 years so far]

2000s (1)
1990s (2)
1980s (3.5)
1970s (4)
  • *Diane Dillon [co-won with husband Leo Dillon] (1977 - Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions)
  • *Diane Dillon [co-won with husband Leo Dillon] (1976 - Why People Buzz in People's Ears)
  • Margot Zemach (1974 - Duffy and the Devil)
  • Nonny Hogrogian (1972 - One Fine Day)
  • Gail E. Haley (1971 - A Story, A Story)
1960s (4)
  • Evaline Ness (1967 - Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine)
  • Nonny Hogrogian (1966 - Always Room for One More)
  • Marcia Brown (1962 - Once a Mouse)
  • Marie Hall Ets (1960 - Nine Days to Christmas)
1950s (3)
  • Barbara Cooney (1959 - Chanticleer and the Fox)
  • Marcia Brown (1955 - Cinderella, or The Glass Slipper)
  • Katherine Milhous (1950 - The Egg Tree)
1940s (3.5)
1930s [only awarded 2 years - 1]
  • Dorothy P. Lathrop (1938 - The Animals of the Bible) This was the first Caldecott awarded.

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