Monday 26 January 2015

Research Bulletin: Gender and Reading

The issue of gender and reading continues to be of interest for OnFiction so that, for instance, a few weeks ago (click here) we commented on the study in which Marisa Bortolussi and colleagues (2010) found that both women and men preferred male protagonists. Is this result due to congruence with the stereotype in Western industrial society that men are the ones who do things out there in the world? Maybe it’s different in Russia where I have heard it said that the women do everything, and the men do everything else.

The gender differences of one of the first studies in our group in Toronto surprised us. The study was a central part of Angela Biason’s PhD thesis (1993), and it was reported in Oatley (1996). We asked 59 high-school students to read one of two short stories about adolescent identity. One was “Red Dress” by Alice Munro. It had a female protagonist. The other was “Sucker” by Carson McCullers. It had a male protagonist. We adapted the method of Larson and Seilman (1988) and asked the participants, as they read, to mark an M in the margin if they experienced a memory coming to mind, and to mark an E in the margin if they experienced an emotion. We counted up the Ms and Es for each story. The 12 girls who read “Red Dress” experienced a mean of 6.67 emotions as they were reading, and the 13 girls who read “Sucker” experienced 6.77 emotions (overall mean 6.72). By contrast, the 17 boys who read “Red Dress” experienced a mean of 2.88 emotions, and the 17 who read “Sucker” experienced 4.88 emotions (overall mean 3.88). (The overall means were significantly different as a function of gender at p < 0.02.)
We interpreted our results as meaning that high-school girls were much more involved than boys in these stories as they read them, and that the girls were equally able to experience emotions in themselves with both female and male protagonists. The high-school girls were willing to make a leap into another mind, they were equally able to identify with a female or male protagonist. By contrast, the boys were, overall, not only less willing to identify with the protagonist about whom they were reading, but they were particularly unwilling to make a leap into the mind of the female protagonist of “Red Dress.” We also asked both the girls and the boys to write a summary of the story, and we had these marked by their English teachers. There was no significant gender difference between the sets of marks, nor was there any significant difference between the expected marks of the girls and boys in English literature. The curriculum for the classes whose members we studied was typical for high school English literature: being able to give details of stories, and understand their themes. It puzzled us that these abilities were independent of girls' and boys' willingness to involve themselves in the stories they read.

What does this mean? One conclusion is that although high-school girls and boys were equally able to do as they were asked by their teachers of literature, the girls were more able to become involved with, and hence to take an interest in, stories in which the content was interpersonal, and had to do with understanding the self and others. As we reported in December 2013 (click here) the US National Endowment for the Arts found in their 2009 survey, based on 18,000 telephone interviews, that 58 % of women but only 42% of men had, in the previous year, read a novel a short story, a piece of poetry, or a play.

Biason, A. (1993). Emotional responses of high-school students to short stories. PhD, University of Toronto.  

Bortolussi, M., Dixon, P., & Sopčák, P. (2010). Gender and reading. Poetics, 38, 299-318.

Larsen, S. F., & Seilman, U. (1988). Personal remindings while reading literature. Text, 8, 411-429.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy (No. 46). Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Oatley, K. (1996). Inference in narrative and science. In D. R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), Modes of thought (pp. 123-140). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Image: Book cover of Alice Munro’s first collection of short stories, which includes “Red Dress.” 
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