Study by UChicago professor reveals persistent race and gender bias in children’s books

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Professor Anjali Adukia. Photo courtesy uchicago.edu

In a new working paper, Assistant Professor Anjali Adukia of the Harris School of Public Policy at University of Chicago found that over the past 100 years, characters in children’s books —as measured by images and text— are largely white and male.

This dominance is also present in books published in recent decades, after heightened awareness about race and gender issues in the world, according to a press release from the University.

Moreover, Adukia and her co-authors—Emileigh Harrison, Teodora Szasz and Hakizumwami Birali Runesha of the University of Chicago, and Alex Eble of Teachers College, Columbia University—found that mainstream children’s books have grown less representative in terms of skin color of characters pictured over the last two decades. Surprisingly, children themselves are underrepresented in children’s books as well.

Adukia believes these findings have important implications for educators and publishers, and others concerned about the influence of books on childhood development.

“Research has demonstrated that the way that people are represented within books can contribute to children’s understanding about what roles they and others can or cannot inhabit,” she said in the press release.

To conduct their research, the authors developed new artificial intelligence tools to analyze images in books. They trained AI models to detect faces, classify skin color, and predict the race, gender and age of the faces.

The effort analyzed 1,133 children’s books totaling more than 160,000 pages that were likely to appear in homes, classrooms and school libraries over the last century.

The works were categorized as either: “mainstream books,” those selected without explicit intention to highlight an identity group; and “diversity books,” which did explicitly highlight an identity group.

They found that children were twice as likely to check out mainstream books from a major public library system relative to other books, suggesting greater exposure to the messages in these books.

“We find that mainstream books, which children are more likely to encounter, are more likely to depict characters with lighter skin than ‘diversity books,’ which are specifically selected to highlight people of color or females,” Adukia said in the release.

What she found surprising was that children are portrayed with lighter skin than adults in each collection, which has concerning implications for how perceptions related to youth and innocence may be shaped.

The authors anticipate that their innovative application of AI will lead to further development of tools that can measure how people are represented in books and other media, and thereby help determine what content depicts characters in their full humanity.

Adukia completed her doctoral degree and masters of education degrees at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and her bachelor of science degree in molecular and integrative physiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

She is a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research and a faculty affiliate of the University of Chicago Education Lab and Crime Lab.

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