UPDATED OPINION: Literary gender bias – how do we fix it?

Posted on May 30, 2014

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UPDATE – well even the best of us can make a mistake and mugs like me can make even more. Thanks to Sarah (below) there is some Australian data on readership courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. No idea why this did not turn up during my search of the ABS website when I was drafting the article, but there you go. The relevant readership details are:

Newspapers at least once a week % Books at least once a week % Magazines at least once a week %
Male 78.6 39.2 55.1
Female 75.9 56.1 60.5

And now back to the original post…

I am currently reading The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss. And taking a break from that engrossing read (a review shall not be long in coming) I find myself inspired to reflect some thoughts that this reading has caused to emerge once more.

Now I am about to discuss some matters of gender. So first thing some clarification I where I come from is probably in order. Sure, I went through that adolescent phase where, because I was stronger and faster than the girls around me (but far from the ‘best’ in male ranks) that somehow made me superior. But on reflection, I doubt that is a much more stupid thing on the face of the earth than an adolescent male.

Once out in the real world, any such sense of superiority soon disappeared. Some people were better than me in the work we did, others less so. Gender did not come into it. I have had good bosses and bad – and both genders fell into both classes so gender was not an issue there either. Nor at any time have I been paid more to do a particular job because I am male than a female would have been – fortunately gender did not play a role in those forms of award wages. Certainly I have found women who could be very emotive people when driven by particular hormonal things. But equally, while not a violent person, when playing Australian Rules football or cricket, once the higher levels of testosterone were pumping, I wanted to charge through opponents or bowl a bouncer good enough to take a batsmen’s head off. The fact my decidedly meagre talents greatly restricted my ability to do so did not stop the emotional factor driven by hormones. So clearly having hormones influence an emotional state is hardly anything restricted by gender.

In my thirties, I coached a women’s cricket team for a time. And I found it a wonderfully rewarding experience. Unlike young males, ‘my’ girls did not see the need to argue the point or question everything, they just went out and did. I was quite frustrated by the difficulty in teaching them to do certain things better such as throwing a ball, until a physiotherapist acquaintance who had herself been something of an elite athlete, pointed out that in our modern ‘Western’ world, girls are still not greatly encouraged to do physical activities. Consequently things like the rotator cuff in the shoulder become less well developed or developed differently to boys, later restricting ability to, for example, throw. Yes, I am well aware that there are elite female athletes who can indeed do things such as field a ball, catch and throw better than the average male (go watch how a female softball pitcher really lets that ball fly) however that is an exception rather than a rule. So that is not a gender difference per se but more a product of a societal norm.

The bottom line is that it has been reinforced to me over and over that gender is not a basis of ‘worth’, ability (other than general physical differences), or ‘potential.’

It is beyond question that male authors dominate literary reviews and receipt of major awards. But why? Is it a deliberate bias by the small number of ‘serious’ reviewers and people involved with major awards? An unconscious bias? Something else? Are female authors failing to recognised – particularly in reviews – in any proportional sense? I am sure the answer is yes – but to what degree?

If we want to produce an unassailable argument to help achieve change, then we need more hard data. For example I recently read an article which stated there are more female authors and readers than male. But there was not any actual data to back that up. Observational things such as “I see more women buy books” or “I know more female authors than male” do not provide that required strength in data for analysis. While I suspect those positions might be true, that in itself does not provide an empirical proof.

This matter of data surrounding issues such as authorship, readership and gender has occupied my mind for some time. I come from a background in statistics for years and perhaps not surprisingly think of things in terms of data and methodology. If questions or uncertainties exist around either of those then any findings are harder to stand by. A case in point was a statistics lecturer I had years ago, who amused himself by doing correlation analysis of seemingly unrelated sets of data. One unexpected result was a near-perfect positive correlation between consumption of apples and the Australian divorce rate ie as consumption of apples increased, so did the divorce rate. It is a pretty safe bet that this was a nonsense correlation, a coincidence, more reflective of other things such as increase in population. But it does serve to demonstrate the need to ensure we have meaningful and defensible data.

So how do we ensure we have that good data? And here is where we run into trouble. It is hard enough to even find really meaningful sales data. For example ‘best sellers’ lists tend to be artificially constructed other than ones such as Amazon’s which are supposed to be a strict analysis of their own sales. And sales data of Amazon titles are not publicly available anyway. Some snippets become available from the major publishing houses from time to time but on their own these cannot be guaranteed to be truly representative. Obtaining more meaningful detailed divisions in data becomes that much more difficult yet without those a truly defensible empirical proof is not possible.

Following the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax to Australia in 2000 and a questionable inclusion of GST on books (opponents arguing this was a taxing of knowledge,) funding was made available for three years for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to conduct surveys of book publishing. But once that funding ceased so did the survey. I mention this merely to illustrate that if resources are not available, such more detailed independent work is going to be hard to find. And without such an approach, we are not going to be able to provide an unassailable proof of things such as gender divisions in authorship, sales etc on which a similarly strong argument may be produced to lead a change in removing any possible gender bias in things such as reviews etc. Analysis of readership becomes even more difficult to establish in anything other than anecdotal or possibly indicative manners.

I do not  believe we should even need to be seeking an empirical proof in order to remove the question of gender from things such as reviews. But without that underlying data, I fear we shall not be seeing any real change any time soon as merely citing differences in ratios has not achieved much to date. I believe that culturally we are poorer as a result.

Over to you – what do you think about the subject?

Ross sig

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Posted in: Opinion