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AI has exposed a book character gender gap – with more men than women

  • Researchers have found men outnumber women 4:1 in works of literature.
  • They used natural language processing, a branch of artificial intelligence, to analyze mentions of gender pronouns.
  • The cumulative effect of such unconscious gender bias can contribute to the gender pay gap and fewer women being in leadership positions.

“Reader, I married him.” So says Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 romance – a line so famous because of the hurdles she must jump to get to that point.

But some 175 years and all the progress towards gender equality later, there are four times as many Edward Fairfax Rochesters as there are Jane Eyres, according to artificial intelligence (AI).

It also offered an insight into the adjectives used to describe women – and for now, let’s just say Brontë would not have approved.

Gender bias in books

Researchers from the University of Southern California’s (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering used a machine learning tool to analyze 3,000 books digitized on Project Gutenberg, including novels, short stories and poetry, ranging from adventure and science fiction to mystery and romance.

Mayank Kejriwal, research lead at USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI), is an expert in natural language processing (NLP) and was inspired by work on implicit gender biases.

Together with co-author Akarsh Nagaraj, a machine learning engineer at Meta, Kejriwal used named entity recognition (NER), an NLP method used to extract gender-specific characters.

“One of the ways we define this is through looking at how many female pronouns are in a book compared to male pronouns,” says Kejriwal. They also defined how many female characters are the main characters in the book, to work out whether male characters were central to the story.

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been agreed in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Mind the character gender gap

A chart showing the global book reading divide

Women read more than men.

Image: Deloitte Insights

While other research has found women read more than men, mentions of men outnumbered women 4:1 in the USC study. Tellingly, this ‘character gender gap’ narrowed when the books were written by women.

“It clearly showed us that women in those times would represent themselves much more than a male writer would,” says Nagaraj.

The NLP technology also allowed researchers to find adjective associations with gender-specific characters, which they said deepened their understanding of bias and its pervasiveness in society.

“Even with misattributions, the words associated with women were adjectives like ‘weak’, ‘amiable’, ‘pretty’, and sometimes ‘stupid’,” says Nagaraj. “For male characters, the words describing them included ‘leadership’, ‘power’, ‘strength’, and ‘politics’.”

Kejriwal hopes the study will highlight the importance of interdisciplinary research and, more specifically, using AI technology to turn a spotlight on social issues and inequalities.

Why fair representation in literature matters

As Jessica Nordell told the World Economic Forum in an interview for her book The End of Bias: “We live in a culture and absorb information from that culture about which categories are relevant, which categories are salient and what those categories mean. And we absorb a lot of associations and stereotypes and kinds of cultural knowledge about those categories.”

“Gender bias is very real, and when we see females four times less in literature, it has a subliminal impact on people consuming the culture,” says Kejriwal. “We quantitatively revealed an indirect way in which bias persists in culture.”

Over time the cumulative effect of unconscious gender bias can add up, says Nordell – contributing to the gender pay gap and fewer women being in leadership positions.

It will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide, according to the Forum’s Global Gender Report 2021, which doesn’t fully reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It found “a persistent lack of women in leadership positions”, with women representing just 27% of all manager positions.

Seeing women represented equally in literature could be just one way to reduce unconscious bias and help close the gender gap.

“Our study shows us that the real world is complex but there are benefits to all different groups in our society participating in the cultural discourse,” notes Kejriwal. “When we do that, there tends to be a more realistic view of society.”


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