Children’s toys are famously gendered. On the shelves of a toy shop, dolls might stare across the aisle at the army figurines, but never the twain shall meet.
And as much as I disagree with this differentiation and encourage my children to ignore it, I find my daughter consistently tends to prefer to play with dolls than with the model volcano that attracts my son’s attention.
But children’s toys are not the only products that the genders choose and respond to in different ways – men and women also often differ in the way they approach and select books.
In general, women are more likely to read at all than men, with the average woman reading 14 books a year, compared with nine books for the average man. Women prefer to read fiction, while men are more likely to read nonfiction books.
There is also a gulf in the more specific genres that men and women choose, with men tending to read history, biographies and memoir and science fiction, while women were more likely to choose mystery, thriller and crime, romance and other fiction.
I have to admit that while I might try to dissuade my children from falling into gender stereotypes, I fail to challenge the gender stereotype in my own reading habits; I love fiction and rarely read any other books. The idea of picking up a history book (other than historical fiction) or biography is foreign to me, and although I am open to science fiction, I don’t usually choose it.
All of this will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read a bookshop or department store Mother’s Day or Father’s Day catalogue, in which the differentiation between ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ books is stark. But it might surprise many readers that it is not just the choice of genre that differs between the sexes – it is also the gender of the author. A survey of 40,000 members of Goodreads book review website exposed a sharp gender divide, finding that both men and women leaned almost entirely towards selecting books by writers of their own sex. Male authors accounted for 90 per cent of men’s 50 most-read titles in 2014, while of the 50 books published in 2014 that were most read by women, 45 were by women.
Editor-in-chief and co-founder of Goodreads Elizabeth Khuri Chandler said some men reported that they read more male authors because they believed men were more likely to write the type of books they like to read, in the genres or about the topics that interested them.
So, why do the differences between the reading choices of men and women exist? One clue might lie in a study conducted by the impact of fiction on men and women. Queen Mary College asked men to nominate the books they felt to be most notable, with the results revealing a stark difference between the choices of the sexes. Men nominated books of alienation and indifference (Camus’s The Outsider and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), while women chose books of passion and connection, by the Bronte sisters, Margaret Atwood and Jane Austen. While men were far more likely to choose books by dead white men, women veered towards female writers.
Even the researchers were surprised by the results, and their suggestion of gender stereotypes, with women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men preferring novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle.
“We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life’s journey, as consolers or guides, as women do,” said researcher Professor Lisa Jardine. “They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals.”
Professor Jardine suggested that women, in contrast, used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence, and often employed them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration. Given these insights, is there any wonder that men and women might prefer books of different genres?
However, some signs point to a shrinking of the gap between what men and women choose to read, with reports suggesting that women are increasingly reading fantasy fiction, as they have grown up enjoying series like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Divergent.
“There’s been a real sea change in the last five or six years. Not only are more women buying into and reading fantasy but we’re also seeing more female fantasy authors get recognition,” said Julie Crisp, editorial director at Tor UK, Pan Macmillan’s science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint. She said that shows like Game of Thrones had also made an impact, along with social media playing a part in introducing women to the genre.
The genre is also becoming more attractive to women as it increasingly features women as heroines, rather than the male-centric stories typical to fantasy in the past.
But, are the differences between the way men and women read a problem? I think that as long as people do not feel confined to any stereotype of what they should or should not be reading, it is not. We could try to challenge ourselves to read beyond the stereotypes, or we could just continue to read what we like, for whatever reasons we like. And for all of the differences between the way men and women read, there are many, many similarities. Of the handful of people I am most likely to talk about books with, two are men. As long as our boys’ and girls’ bookshelves and local libraries are lined with a diverse range of books, they will have the opportunity and confidence to choose their own preferences, free from pressure or prejudice, just like in the toy box.