Why work with gender equality and literature?

How can you do to expand traditional gender norms for the children under your responsibility in day care? It should not be difficult, because everybody in the Nordic countries reads the classics about Pippi, and about the wondering and sensitive Alfie Atkins and his absolutely attentive dad. Moreover, narrow gender roles are featured in one or more of the volumes in the most popular picture book series: Casper and Emma and Bo and Mo. Children in the Nordic countries are virtually fed equality through their mother’s milk, or through the native-language literature, aren’t they?

Children learn most about gender norms when the issue is not being brandished, and this is also the case with literature. Whether you reflect upon it or not you are important. It is very important which stories you choose to tell. You decide, alone or with others, the access to literature, what you read, how you emphasise it and how it is talked about afterwards. Your narrative practice will be gendered in one way or other. Not least, it will be gendered because much of literature reflects the gender imbalances and the inequalities that exist in society.

Here you will find initiatives, all of which have been tested out by equality experts, students of early childhood education and preschool teachers in the Nordic countries in connection with the development of this website.

Learn to analyse the gender patterns in picture books

You can raise your own competence in seeing gender patterns in picture books and literature by reading about and learning the six analysing strategies presented here. Go to the bookshelf and take out one or two of the picture books you would like to examine more closely.

Go to digital analysis form

Fill inn: Analysis form

Print out: Brief information on the analysis strategies

Bok på bordet

Additional reading tips about gender patterns in picture books:

Gender Dilemmas in Children’s Fiction. Kerry Mallan. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Lasten kuvakirjojen pitkä tie tasa-arvoisiin esitystapoihin.  [Long way to go for a balanced gender representation in children’ picture books] Päivi Heikkilä-Halttunen. Kaikille lapsille. Lastenkirjallisuus liikkuvassa, monikulttuurisessa maailmassa. Anna Teoksessa Rastas (toim.) SKS. Helsinki, 2013.

Se så söt du blir i den där! Maktförhandling ur genusperspektiv i Carin och Stina Wirséns bilderböcker [Look how sweet you are in this! Power negotiation from a gender perspective in Carin and Stina Wirsén’s picture books] Mia Österlund, Barnboken 2008/2, 4-17. Full-text publication: http://barnboken.net/index.php/clr/article/view/61

Fortellinger om kjønn i barnelitteraturen [Narratives about gender in children’s literature] Bergljot Østerås, Første steg, 2010:3, 18-22. Full-text publication: https://www.utdanningsforbundet.no/upload/Tidsskrifter/Forste%20steg/FS_nr_3_10/FS_3_2010_side_18-21.pdf

Jenter og makt!: Kari Skjønsberg-dagene 2013: Jentebilder og kjønnsforskning i barnelitteraturen. [Girls and power!: Kari Skjønsberg days 2013: Girl images and gender research in children’s literature] Anne Kristin Lande and Sofie Arneberg. (red.). Nasjonalbiblioteket. Oslo, 2013

Bilderbok ens mångfald och möjligheter. Studiehandledning [The diversity and opportunities of the picture book. Study guide] Agneta Edwards. Natur & Kultur Akademisk, 2009

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Hold analysis workshops with your students/colleagues

To focus on the importance of gender in literature you can hold an analysis workshop with your colleagues in day care. For some people, the need for a gender perspective in picture books appears to be unnecessary, or even ridiculous, particularly in light of the public discussion on books using personal pronouns such as “hen” and publishing houses dedicated to norm-critical literature. But holding an analysis workshop may enable you to discuss and obtain a shared knowledge base.

You can either update yourself on gender analysis, or you can invite an expert to hold the programme for you. We have good experiences with such programmes for early childhood education students, for preschool teachers and for staff in individual at day care centres.

All the participants should read the picture book they want to analyse and then bring it to the seminar for analysis. It might be even more interesting if agreement is reached on a criterion for selection: for example that each person chooses a picture book from the day care centre, or that each person has a picture book with a fairy tale and so on. Then the analysis of all the books will be centred on that criterion. These workshops are suitable for picture books with a story (i.e. reference books and poetry are unsuitable).

Bok på bordet 3

It is imperative when organising such a workshop that you make sure that the participants will land on an opinion or conclusion relating to gender equality in the book. Does each person find that that the book expands or confirms traditional gender norms? Does she or he believe that the picture book reinforces existing gender patterns, or that it weakens these? The conclusion and arguments can provide a valuable basis for reflection and discussion about the educational practice in the day care centre.

Example of a programme for an analysis workshop:

  • – Title: Do the picture books in our day care centre expand traditional gender norms?
  • – Welcome and programme information (5 minutes)
  • – Presentation of the analysis strategies and gender patterns in picture books (40 minutes)
  • – Pairs analyse a picture book using the analysis form (40 minutes)
  • – Summary in a plenary session by each group (4 minutes per group)

Go to: Analysis form

Go to: Brief information on the analysis strategies

Examine the picture books on the bookshelf

The books that are on the bookshelf in the day care centre (or in the nursery), form the basis for determining which narratives and pictures about being a girl or a boy the children will encounter. Literature and pictures may show the children a bigger world than the one they encounter on a day-to-day basis, and also make it understandable. Does the literature in your day care centre accomplish this?

Does your day care centre have literature with a wide scope of ways of being a boy or a girl? Does it have stories about children who fit in neither the “girl” or “boy” box? Does it have stories about different kinds of family constellations? Does it have stories about persons with different religions, skin colours or origins? Does it also have stories about children with particular difficulties so that children who are living in such a situation understand that they are not alone, and that children who live in better conditions will understand more?

Examine the diversity of the books

Examine the books on the bookshelf in your day care centre, and check out the scope of the stories and the ways they show characters doing gender and being family. To do this, the questionnaire developed in the EU’s Gender Loops project may be useful.

Go to: The Gender Loops checklist for picture books

A group of early childhood education students from the University College of Zealand in Denmark examined the bookshelf in a year 1 classroom. The findings were negative. Many old picture books dominated the shelves, and many of them clearly reflected traditional gender role models. The selection had books with rhymes, ditties and puns, some good examples and some poor ones. The good examples were books with rhymes that were multi-faceted and played with gender norms. Among the poor examples were books with rhymes not written with gender and equality in mind, but which still voice and confirm traditional gender discourses.

Count the number of books with a male and a female main character

This is a simple and quick examination that will rapidly illustrate the scope of role models girls and boys have in the bookshelf in your day care centre or nursery.

"36Task a) Remove all the books from the bookcase and sort them into four piles on the floor or on a table if there are not too many. Count the number of books in each pile.

Pile 1: Picture books with a main character of each gender

Pile 2: Picture books with a female main character

Pile 3: Picture books with a male main character

Pile 4: Others category, picture books with a main character not easy to categorise as male or female, or a book that does not lend itself to such categorisation (books of poems, reference works etc.)

Stabler bøker på bord

12 books with a male animal as the main character, 5 books with main characters of both genders who are animals, no books with female animals as the main character.

Task b) Select the books from piles 1, 2 and 3 which have a main character who is an animal or creature. Count the number of books of this type in each of these three piles.

Map out professions, positions and gender

What types of job or profession or position do the female and male characters have in the books on the bookshelf in the day care centre or nursery? Which jobs and positions do the children see that women and men have? Are these the same professions and the same positions, or are there differences? What is the significance of this? When performing this task it may be advantageous to have several persons working together, particularly if there are many picture books on the shelves.

  1. 1. Count the number of picture books.
  2. 2. Go through all the picture books and put those without professions and positions in a separate pile.
  3. 3. Browse all the picture books and look for pictures of all jobs/professions (doctor, teacher, shop assistant) and positions (king, thief, pirate), including when these are occupied by subordinate characters.
  4. 4. Insert post-it notes if a book has pictures of several professions or positions.
  5. 5. Tick off for each picture book with a profession and position in the attached form. If, for example, the book has pictures of a female doctor and a male teacher, put down a tick for each. Do not tick off more than once even if there are several female teachers in a book. Use the open fields for the professions that are not mentioned.
  6. 6. Use crayons with different colours and mark in the form:
    • – the jobs/positions that have both men and women,
    • – the jobs/positions held only by women, and
    • – the jobs/positions held only by men.
  7. 7. Return to the floor/table with the open books with pictures of professions. Group books showing similar types of professions/positions and take a picture (service jobs, pirates/thieves, teaching etc.).
  8. 8. Assess and discuss the result of your examination.

Go to: Form for the mapping of professions, positions and gender in the day-care bookshelf


From major quantitative studies of picture books it has found that women are in the minority in terms of being pictured in a professional context. This also proved to be true in our limited examination. In a sample of 62 picture books we found 29 jobs and positions displayed. Of these 29, 23 were occupied by men and 14 by women. If we had read these books to a group of children, they would have seen that men are shown in almost twice the number of jobs and positions as women. In our sample, boys would see a significantly greater number of persons of their own gender in jobs and positions than girls. This applies to professions wearing a uniform such as firefighters, police and postal workers, and jobs such as fisher, janitors and waste collectors. Just men in our limited sample were shown in these jobs/professions. Conversely women were only found in the professions of doctor and veterinary surgeon.

Survey what children like to read

A group of student teachers from the University College of Zealand examined the books most liked by girls and boys in a preschool class. You can ask the same questions in your day care centre:

  • – Which books are most often chosen by the staff to read to the children?
  • – When girls and boys can choose literature themselves, what do they choose?
  • – Which reasons do the children give for their choice of books?
  • – Which similarities and differences are there between the choices of literature made by adults, children, girls and boys?
  • – Observe and speak with the children when books are read. What did they particularly like about the book? If they did not think the book was particularly exciting, for what reasons?

Acquire new literature

The books on the shelves are, as mentioned above, the basis for what is read in a day care centre. Thus it is very important that there should be a large variety in terms of genres, themes and gender. When acquiring new literature, consideration should be given to what is absent from the diversity on the shelves and what the children like.

In the Nordic countries there is now a series of picture books which describe various ways of being a girl and a boy, books which have descriptions of children who do not fit into the categories “girl” and “boy”, picture books about different ways of being a family, and many picture books about children with different skin colours and origins experiencing just the same things as everybody else. If the day care centre has not already acquired some of these picture books, they should.

It is common that a day care centre will organise its picture books in crates according to themes, such as dinosaurs, buildings, fairy-tales and fantasy, to make it easier for the children to choose what they are interested in “today”, and where also one can take the crate/theme box home. It may also be a good idea to also have a separate crate with picture books which deal with gender equality, so that the children also may choose books with this theme. It may also be of interest to also have a separate crate about books about families, showing different ways making and of being a family.

Initiate a project about gender and commercial picture books

When children and adults go to the bookstore or the Appstore the gender norms in commercial picture books are often quite obvious. The message given to girls in many of the books is that if you are good-looking, nice and dutiful, you will do well in life. The message for boys in many of the books is that you must be brave and resolute. Then you will do well in life. Precisely how commercial picture books push gender norms to extremes makes them interesting projects about equality in day care. You can:

  • – Talk with the children about what they like and dislike about these books
  • – Talk with the children’s parents about what they think about gender norms in commercial picture books and commercial children’s culture
  • – Talk with the teachers and the staff about gender norms in commercial picture books and commercial children’s culture
Kjønnsdelt bokhandel Kjønnsdelt bokhandel

One of the sub-projects at the University College of Zealand focused on picture books from Disney, and a number of interesting questions were asked: Children read Disney books and watch Disney films at home. Should we also do this, or should we consciously use other literature? Does it matter whether children are fascinated by the gender typical aspects in Disney’s princess universe? Is this not merely a phase or stage? The most important aspect is probably that the staff or adults do not also confirm that these values are the most important ones. For example, that the appearance of a woman/girl is the most important thing about her. Many of the project participants also questioned whether it is ethically right of day care to have a passive attitude to the ranking which is so obvious in many of the books, as expressed by one of the students:

“To have a high ranking in the Disney hierarchy, you must be tall, have a narrow waist, large breasts (even if you are a child you must have breasts, only a bit smaller) and long fair hair. This is the opposite of being inclusive. This also applies to male characters, if you are like me and have a little extra around the waist, you will place far down in the hierarchy.”

Literature and resources about gender equality in day care

As with other efforts in day care gender equality do not come about on its own. The efforts to provide good learning conditions regardless of gender and to counteract structures of gender imbalance require time, skilled and knowledgeable early childhood teachers and planning. The skills needed for this work is a practical and academic discipline on its own, and training is paramount. The discipline figure under different names; equality pedagogy, gender sensitive pedagogy, gender pedagogy and norm critical pedagogy. Below are websites and references for important resources and works.

The Nordic countries

Hållbart jämställdhetsarbete i förskolan och skolan i Norden : Med lärande exempel. Mia Heikkilä. Nordisk Ministerråd, 2013 [Sustainable equality activities in preschool and school in the Nordic countries. With instructive examples] Full-text publication: http://norden.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:701475/FULLTEXT01.pdf


Børnehaver med Plads til Pippiprinser og Piratprinsesser : En inspirationsguide til at arbejde med køn og ligestilling i børnehaver. Minister for ligestilling. Danmarks Pædagogiske Universitetsskole. Århus Universitet, 2008. [Day care centres with room for Pippi princes and Pirate princesses : An inspirational guide to working with gender and equality in day care centres] Full-text publication: http://miliki.dk/fileadmin/ligestilling/PDF/boernehaver/inspirationsguide_boernehaver.pdf

Køn i børnehøjde. Leif Askland og Nina Rossholt. Dansk Psykologisk Forlag. 2011. [Gender for children] A book


Jafnrétti í skólum : Það læra börn sem fyrir þeim er haft, 2008.[Equality in Schools : Children learn from what they see] Online overview of project, sub-projects and contact information: http://www.jafnrettiiskolum.is/D10/_FILES/Kynningarb%C3%A6klingur%2017.%20septemb.PDF

Ævintýralegt jafnrétti . Anna Elísa Hreiðarsdóttir. Leikskólinn Iðavöllur. 2014 [Adventurous equality] Project reports and material from a nursery in full-text: http://idavollur.is/?page_id=129

“Snemma beygist krókurinn“ : Úr stöðluðum kynjahlutverkum í kynjajafnrétti. Svandís Anna Sigurðardóttir. Heilsuleikskólinn Krókur. 2013-2014. [Early start : Traditional gender roles and gender equality] Project report from a nursery in full-text: http://www.sprotasjodur.is/static/files/heilsuleikskolinn-krokur_no-47_lokaskyrsla.pdf

Kynjajafnréttisfræðsla í skólum : Hindranir og tækifæri . Grein Þorgerðar Einarsdóttur & Ingólfs Ásgeirs Jóhannessonar [Gender equality education in schools : Obstacles and opportunities] An article and a full-text publication: http://skemman.is/stream/get/1946/12404/30783/1/thorgerdur.pdf

Kynjamyndir í skólastarfi . Arna H. Jónsdóttir, Steinunn H. Lárusdóttir, Þórdís Þórðardóttir. Rannsóknarstofnun Kennaraháskóla Íslands, 2005. [Gender in education] A book anthology in full-text: http://skemman.is/item/view/1946/10844

Að læra til telpu og drengs : Kynjaðir lærdómar í leikskóla. Þórdísar Þórðardóttur. Ráðstefnurit Netlu : Menntakvika. 2012 [Learning to girlhood and boyhood: Gendered learning in preschools] An article and a full-text publication: http://skemman.is/item/view/1946/14583

Þegar Rósa var Ragnar / Þegar Friðrik var Fríða. Louise Windfeldt & Katrine Clante. 2009[The day when Fredrik was Frida and the day when Rikke was Rasmus] A non-traditional picture book in full-text: http://www.jafnretti.is/D10/_FILES/%C3%9Eegar%20R%C3%B3sa%20var%20Ragnar.pdf


Jämställdhet på dagis. [Equality in day care] The website of Folkehälsan wiht tips about literature and contact information on working with gender: http://www.folkhalsan.fi/startsida/Var-verksamhet/Ma-bra/Jamstalldhet/Jamstalldhet-pa-dagis-/

Sukupuolisensitiivisyys varhaiskasvatuksessa – tasa-arvoinen kohtaaminen päiväkodissa. [Gender sensitive preschool pedagogy – encounters with equality in day care]. Website in Finnish made by the feminist association Unioni.  The website has terms, questions, work results and findings, and provide data on gender and equality in day care: http://www.tasa-arvoinenvarhaiskasvatus.fi/

Lastentarhanopettajien jaettuja muisteluja sukupuolesta ja vallasta arjen käytännöissä. Outi Ylitapio-Mäntylä. Lapin yliopistokustannus. Akateeminen väitöskirja. 2009.  [The shared experiences of teachers in day care : gender and power in the practice forms of day-to-day life] Doctoral dissertation and full-text publication: http://lauda.ulapland.fi/handle/10024/61659    


Likestilt og pedagogisk praksis : Søt eller tøff – et fritt valg?  Likestillingssenteret, DMMH for førskolelærerutdanning, Kanvas. 2012 [Equality and educational practice : Sweet or tough – a free choice?] Brief guide on how to work with equality and equal value in day care. Full text-publication: http://www.udir.no/Upload/barnehage/Pedagogikk/Veiledere/Veileder_barnehager.pdf?epslanguage=no

Kjønnsblind, kjønnsnøytral eller kjønnsbevisst? Pedagoger møter barn, kolleger og foreldre. Ingerid Bø. 2014. Universitetsforlaget. [Gender Blind, gender neutral or gender conscious? Pedagogues encounter children, colleagues and parents] A book

Større rom for jenter og gutter : Å utvikle en kjønnssensitiv pedagogikk i barnehagen. Leif Askland. Kommuneforlaget. 2015 [More room for girls and boys. Developing gender sensitive pedagogy in day care] A book


Genusskolan [The gender school]. The Swedish secretariat for gender research has on this website collected research news and interviews with researchers who have relevant material on gender pedagogy in preschool and school: www.genusskolan.se

Genusvetskapens pedagogik och didaktik. Anna Lundberg & Ann Werner (ed.) Nationella sekretariatet för genusforskning. 2012 [The pedagogy and didactics of gender science] Full-text publication: http://www.genus.se/digitalAssets/1393/1393127_pedagogikochdidaktik.pdf

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