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Balance the Books: Where Are the Female Authors in GCSE Set Texts?

19/09/2014 17:15 BST | Updated 19/11/2014 10:59 GMT

At GCSE, I studied Steinbeck and Priestley. My first year at A-Level, I studied Browning, Auden, Fitzgerald and Hosseini. It was only in the second year that I studied Carter and Bronte as well as Marlowe. Work by female authors took up less than a third of my secondary education space - and unequal gender representation is set to increase.

For Books' Sake's new petition, which was launched last week, asks GCSE exam boards to 'commit to gender equality, including diverse set texts in terms of race, class and sexuality'. While it isn't exactly new to note that all GCSE boards' representation of women has always been less than equal, every board from AQA to Edexcel has announced a planned further decrease in its percentage of female writers in 2017. At present, this year on average 63% of texts across GCSE boards are written by men, while 37% are written by women. Yet in 2017, the gap between the two will increase further if government plans go ahead: texts by men are set to rise to 69%, while the percentage of female authors will decrease to just 31%.

Exposure to authors of different sexes, races and classes is incredibly important in teaching young people, yet it seems that the English syllabus is committed only to teaching the work of white male authors. Rosie Ward-Lowery, sitting her GCSEs last year on the OCR board, told me that she studied Priestley, Steinbeck, Shakespeare and Golding. She said, 'it's really important that there's a balance of male and female authors at GCSE. If schools don't teach women's work on the syllabus, for many students who don't otherwise read, it seems that the wonderful and varied works of many female writers doesn't exist.'

It can often seem that women's experiences are absent from the curriculum at GCSE altogether, across all subjects. Emily Hawkins, studying on the AQA board last year, said that, 'I think the way English is taught at GCSE is very similar to the way History is taught. For my course, this was emphasis on the late twentieth century and on western foreign or domestic policies. None of it was very intersectional. I feel like women's work and experiences are disregarded and left out of the curriculum in general.'

Over 500,000 students sit GCSE exams annually - so the texts they study undeniably have huge influence. Emily said that, 'I do think it's a little bit alienating to be studying texts you can't relate to or texts that perpetuate archaic ideas about gender. I wish literary criticism, like feminist or Marxist theory, was more embedded in the curriculum.' Rosie told me that the novels studied at GCSE reflect society's gender bias as a whole, perpetuating the idea that women's experiences are not valuable. She said, 'It's not that it's impossible to enjoy books written by the opposite gender, or ones that don't include your gender. It's just that overwhelmingly men are protagonists in fiction and films, men are the people who get their books published, while the work of women is demoted to 'chick lit' or not given the attention it deserves.'

Studying novels solely written by male authors undoubtedly has an effect on the representation of female characters. Mia Westrap, who recently finished her GCSEs, told me that, 'I think there's a huge difference between male and female authors in the way they write. Both novelists I studied were male and their books featured mostly men - for example in Of Mice and Men, there's only one female character with dialogue and even then, she isn't given a name in the novel', she said. Rosie agrees: 'The books I studied had few interesting or realistic female characters in, especially Lord of the Flies which has no female characters. Sexism and 'lad culture' are problems in school anyway, but teaching a book where there are no women is detrimental in a society where the work of women is often marginalized, and girls are often taught that their contributions aren't important.'

Observing the world through one viewpoint has little value: an education in English Literature should be an introduction to the rich variety of novels, plays and poetry available. The diversity of texts in the GCSE curriculum desperately needs to change: there should be equal space given to both male and female writers, including an equal balance of writers of colour - and equal space given to novels representing different cultures, ethnicities, classes and sexualities. Diverse representation in the teaching of English Literature is an important education in viewing the world through a variety of different viewpoints students otherwise may not experience - and the opportunity to develop interest, empathy and an understanding of different perspectives is a crucial part of education.

You can sign For Books' Sake's petition for equal representation in GCSE texts here.