We all know that women and men are described differently when mentioned in the news, so it should come as no surprise that the same would apply to books.
Researchers in Copenhagen fed 3.5 million books through an algorithm designed to identify how characters are described. Their goal was to find out whether there is a difference between how men and women are described in literature. This had been tested before, but never at this scale. This time the dataset included millions of books published in English between 1900 to 2008, including both fiction and non-fiction.
The researchers found exactly what you would expect. Eleven of the adjectives used to describe women referred to their physical attributes, compared to only one of the adjectives used to describe men (“brutish”).
For the record, I am counting words like “barren” as describing physical attributes.
“We are clearly able to see that the words used for women refer much more to their appearances than the words used to describe men. Thus, we have been able to confirm a widespread perception, only now at a statistical level,” says computer scientist and assistant professor Isabelle Augenstein of the University of Copenhagen’s computer science department.
These words matter because the books you read influence how you see the world. What this study shows isn’t just related to gender-biased descriptions of women; we are looking at documented proof of the cause of the bias.
You can read the abstract of the study here.