The gender gaps in the publishing industry are no secret: men are more likely to be published than women, and their books are more likely to be considered "serious literature" than women's books. But do men and women have different writing styles — or is it all down to good old sexism? (Spoiler: it's sexism.)
In his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, journalist Ben Blatt analyzed the words used by male or female authors, and found one key (and disturbing) difference: men are more likely to write women out of the picture entirely. Blatt looked at a list of 100 classic works of literature, and counted the male and female pronouns in each. In books written by male authors, the word "she" often didn't crop up at all. Ouch.
Let's take The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein — a book equally beloved amongst readers of all genders, and often set as assigned reading in schools. In the entire book, Tolkein uses the word "she" once — to refer to Bilbo's mother. The Old Man and the Sea and Lord of the Flies are other classic novels by men that female readers may remember being encouraged to read by their teachers — and in each of those books, the word "she" only accounts for 1% of the pronouns.
Books by female writers, on the other hand, do sometimes favor female pronouns — but the disparity is nowhere near as severe. Some of the most extreme cases include The Joy Luck Club and The House of Mirth — but even in these female-focused narratives, the word "he" accounts for a fairly generous 29% of the gendered pronouns. What this means is that many young girls have grown up being encouraged to read books that leave them out entirely, whereas men and boys are generally allowed a fairly central role in any book.
Of course, this study is looking at a fairly small sample of classic books — and hopefully, the gender gap isn't quite so extreme in more recent books. But until books by and about men stop being recommended above those by and about women — there's still a lot of work to be done.