Balancing the Books: Changing the gender balance in English school texts

30 percent. According to the Stella Prize Schools Program, that’s the percentage of New South Wales HSC texts written by female authors. Victoria doesn’t fare much better with female writers making up less than 40 percent of their English text lists.

Texts by male authors such as Richard Flanagan, David Malouf and Samuel Beckett appear on the English curriculum lists for the 2016 Victorian Certificate of Education while in New South Wales texts for the Higher School Certificate for 2015-20 include works by authors such as Tim Winton and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

According to recent national statistics, female students make up around half of the secondary student population. With the underrepresentation of female authors in high school literature, there is a real risk that the texts being studied by these young women (and men) will not reflect their own stories and experiences. So what can be done about this lack of female authors in school reading lists?

The Stella Prize Schools Program, launched last year, aims to bring about a more balanced ratio of male and female authors in the school curriculum. It is promoting change by ‘encouraging [students] to critically engage with their own reading habits and imagine a future not limited by their gender’.

The program has been organised by the same minds that developed the Stella Prize, which aims to increase the recognition of female authors in Australia. The Stella Prize grew out of a panel discussion held in 2011 on the lack of women literary award winners and their underrepresentation in the literary reviews of Australian newspapers. The first award was presented in 2013 and the Prize now runs annually. The Stella Prize offers $50,000 prize money to a female author of a work of fiction or non-fiction.

The Stella Prize Schools Program’s key aims are to, ‘produce educational resources for teachers and educators, lobby curriculum developers to move towards more balanced gender representation, promote children’s and young adult books by Australian women…establish a continuing dialogue with schools, parents and young readers about ways to tackle gender disparity’.

It is often seen as acceptable for girls to read “boys’ books” but not vice-versa, something which helps to perpetuate the undervaluing of female stories, and which may play a part in the make-up of school curriculum reading lists. Giving equal weight to female stories and experiences adds value and validation. Those behind the Stella Prize Schools Program state that, ‘Books help us to understand who we are, and imagine who we might become. But what messages are being sent to young women and men when the literary landscape only shows half the picture?’

The Program’s answer to this question has been to address the issue of female underrepresentation through two avenues – curriculum information aimed at secondary teachers, and school events such as visits by Stella School Ambassadors and panel discussions.

Writer and Schools Program Coordinator, Bec Kavanagh, has created the Stella Prize Schools Program Resource Kit which includes suggested reading lists of works by female authors as well as teaching notes on the Stella Prize shortlisted works for students in Years 10 to 12. This includes Emily Bitto’s Stella Prize-winning novel The Strays, an exploration of the art world of 1930s Melbourne through the eyes of a child, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, a collection of short stories which explores the lives of those whose voices are not often heard. The Resource Kit also provides outlines of activities teachers can undertake with their students to raise awareness of gender bias in their reading habits.

There is also information targeted at students in the younger years (7-10) of high school, including a suggested reading list This includes novels such as Moonlight and Ashes by Sophie Masson, a re-telling of Cinderella, Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness, which takes place in a suburb where the sun never rises, and Melissa Keil’s The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, the story of Alba who’s torn about leaving her small town (apparently the only place safe from the predicted apocalypse) for uni in the city.

The Stella Schools Prize Program has already held a number of events in Victoria such as a mother/daughter book breakfast which included a panel discussion on gender diversity in fiction and an assembly address to the students of another Victorian school by 2015 Stella Prize winner, Emily Bitto, on the idea of “the artist” and the different levels of men’s and women’s confidence in their artistic abilities.

In New South Wales the launch of the Stella Schools Prize Program was held in September 2015, with a discussion around gender and diversity from Stella Schools Ambassador authors including Randa Abdel-Fattah and Emily Maguire.

In an interview on the Stella Prize website, author and Stella Schools ambassador, Nicole Hayes, states her hopes for the program: ‘Fair and proportional representation among books that reflect Australia’s truly diverse society – on every level, whether that be culture, religion, sexuality, ability, any perceived “difference”…And because as someone much smarter than me said, every child should be able to find themselves in stories.’

Increasing student engagement with female authors in schools can enhance the confidence of girls in the importance of their stories, lives and experiences. If a person, whatever their gender, is able to put themselves in another’s shoes, it encourages empathy and an awareness of other people’s lives. The efforts of the Stella Prize Schools Program to provide more a more balanced curriculum will help more students to see themselves in the stories they read and imagine who they might become.

Image: Stewart Butterfield

Jess - Bio PicJessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.

One Comment

  • Sarah Menary commented on November 7, 2015 Reply

    Really important article and makes me optimistic

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