Gender bias in GCSE English Literature

Research Release: Pride and who? Jane where? Gender bias in GCSE English Literature 

Only 2% of GCSE students study a book or novel written by a female author

New research published on 2nd March 2023 by the End Sexism in Schools (ESIS) campaign reveals that only 2% of GCSE students study a book or novel written by a female author.  

The research, which aims to examine the lack of female representation and voice in English Literature[1], found that An Inspector Calls and A Christmas Carol were the two most taught texts, which were studied at 80% and 72% respectively at GCSE level (Year 10 & 11). Both of which are in the top texts taught at KS3 meaning that many pupils are taught the same texts twice between Years 7 and 11. Data was collected from three out of four awarding bodies; Pearson Edexcel, the second largest awarding body, who stated they could not provide us with an analysis of their statistics by the gender of the author. 

Within these texts the female characters are either victims or servants, which leaves little to offer in terms of representation of women. While these can lead to important discussions it would be more valuable to students to also have discussions around positive representations of women. Only ever having the opportunity to discuss women as victims of misogyny perpetuates a narrative of women as victims of a patriarchal society, reinforcing the notion of sexual inequality as an expected norm. 

Of the female authored books on the approved text list, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice were the most common inclusions, however both are the longest novels on the lists, 624 and 448 pages respectively. This makes it harder for teachers to justify their selection over the shorter male authored texts. The result is that female authored texts are not equally matched in terms of teachability and accessibility to the male authored choices, immediately putting them at a disadvantage.  

While authorship is of importance there is also a large discrepancy between the number of female protagonists compared to that of male, and after all, it is the characters and not the authors that pupils will spend most time discussing in lessons. On the set lists 7 in 10 texts for both 19th Century novel and for Modern Prose and Drama have a male protagonist, showing a bias towards the teaching of texts with a male protagonist.  

Comparison of options by gender of protagonist across Awarding Bodies on set texts lists  

By only providing the option for pupils to engage with male perspectives on the world in the literature they read, not only do boys never learn to empathise with and appreciate the viewpoints and experiences of women, but they also get the clear message that women’s voices and perspectives are less important and less valid.   

While work in recent years has been done to increase diversity, often this is implemented with a two birds one stone approach with new additions added to the approved text list by female authors of colour. While this is a great first step, it often involves swapping out less studied texts for new novels meaning few schools will be inclined to change the status quo. The message is clear; the supremacy of white male writing cannot be challenged. The core canon of white male authors is not being changed, and by combining gender and race, it disproportionately affects the representation of white female authors and male authors of colour, who have been all but erased from the modern prose and drama paper.  

Rachel Fenn, Founding Member of ESIS & English teacher comments: 

“While these stats are shocking, they are hardly surprising. The traditional canon of English Literature has always valued the white male voice over others since its creation in the early twentieth century. However, for the next generation to grow up challenging a patriarchal view of the world, both boys and girls need to be exposed to strong and empowering representations of women, not the voiceless victims and servants we see repeatedly in the perennially popular texts taught in English lessons. We are what we read – is it any wonder how Andrew Tate has managed to infiltrate the schooling system and violence against women remains such an endemic problem in our society when our academic curriculum spins this narrative in every lesson? 

While improving PSHE offered in schools is a step in the right direction to improve equality and address sexism, it fails to tackle the underlying systems which perpetuate the ideology that women are less than and their voices are not worth being heard. This is why ESIS is striving so hard to push examining bodies to ensure an equal balance of male and female authored texts and protagonists, and provide schools with meaningful practical support to help them change the texts they teach. We’ve had enough of virtue signalling and platitudes; we want action, and we want it now.’ 

You can also follow the campaign’s progress on Twitter (@NoSchoolSexism), Instagram (@endsexisminschoolsuk) and Facebook (End Sexism In Schools UK). 

Jen Eden
Jen Eden
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