I was looking for information on how women scientists are portrayed in fiction when I found a blog post by Melissa Terras (professor at University College London) on how children’s books portray scientists and other academics.
Here is an excerpt:
What are academics in children’s books like?
The 108 academics found consist of 76 Professors, 21 Academic Doctors, 2 Students, 2 Lecturers, 1 Assistant Professor, 1 Child, 1 Astronomer, 1 Geographer, 1 Medical Doctor who undertakes research, 1 researcher, and 1 lab assistant. In general, the Academic Doctors tend to be crazy mad evil egotists (“It’s Dr Frankensteiner – the maddest mad scientist on mercury!”), whilst the Professors tend to be kindly, but baffled, obsessive egg-heads who dont quite function normally.
The academics are mostly (old, white) males. Out of the 108 found, only 9 are female: 90% of the identified academics are male, 8% are female, and 2% have no identifiable gender (there are therefore much fewer women in this cohort than in reality, where it is estimated that one third of senior research posts are occupied by women). They are also nearly all caucasian: only two of those identified are people of colour: one Professor, and one child who is so smart he is called The Prof: both are male: this is scarily close to the recent statistic that only 0.4% of the UK professoriat are black. 43% of those found in this corpus are are elderly men, 33% are middle aged (comprising of 27% male and 6% female, there are no elderly female professors, as they are all middle age or younger). The women are so lacking that the denoument of one whodunnit/ solve the mystery/ choose your own adventure book for slightly older children is that the professor they have been talking about was actually a woman, and you didn’t see that coming, did you? Ha!
The earliest published academic in a children’s book found was in 1922 (although its probable that the real craze for featuring baffled old men came after the success of Professor Branestawm, which was a major international bestseller, first published in 1933, and not out of print since). The first woman Professor found is the amazing Professor Puffendorf – billed as “the world’s greatest scientist” -, published in 1992, 70 years after the first male professor appears in a children’s book. 70 years (although it is frustrating that the book really isn’t about her, but what her jealous, male lab assistant gets up to in her lab when she goes off to a conference. More Puffendorf next time, please). There is also a more recent phenomenon of using a Professor as a framing device to suggest some gravitas to a book’s subject, but the professor themselves does not appear in any way within the text, so its impossible to say if they are male or female. Male Professors in children’s books have appeared much more frequently over the past ten years: women not so much.
Here is the link to the blog, titled Male, Mad and Muddleheaded: The portrayal of academics in children’s books is shockingly narrow.
I highly recommend to read the entire blog. I found the last section, titled “Why is this relevant?”, to be especially thought-provoking. You can see why, from this excerpt:
That said, the difference in gender, and how women and men are represented, and the underepresentation of those who are anything but white in children’s books about academia, is shocking, especially given that almost all scientific fields are still dominated by men, and women are frequently discriminated against and although 46% of all PhD graduates in the EU are female, only 1/3 of senior research posts are occupied by women. At a time when researchers are asking if available toys can influence later career choice, can the same be said about books? At a time when it is becoming the parents’ job to encourage girls into science and technology – and to educate all children about science and engineering careers – does the lack of anything but white, old men as academics in children’s books reinforce the impossibility of anyone other than those making a contribution? At a time when the leaky pipe of academia shows that women are leaving in droves at every level of the academic ladder, should we be worried that there are no female academics in children’s books above middle age?