Monday, August 15, 2016

Gender Bias in Literary Awards

Peggy Blair created a mild furor a couple of months ago with a blog piece titled “Gender Bias in Canadian Crime Writing Awards.” Ms. Blair—who I do not know and I hope she takes no offense at me using her article as a starting point—lists the past seven years of Arthur Ellis nominees, broken out by gender, along with the gender of the winner.

It’s not pretty. Men wrote 28 of the 35 shortlisted books, and all seven winners. Women had only one nomination each year, except for 2014, when there were two, which made up for 2013 when there were none. Eighty percent male nominees is a damning figure. There’s clearly gender bias in just about everything else, so why not writing? Acknowledging this and doing something about it are two different things.

Two paragraphs of Ms. Blair’s piece stuck out to me:

How widespread is the problem of gender inequality? Well, I saw a picture on Facebook yesterday of the mystery panel at Prose in the Park, a new literary festival in Ottawa. There were five panelists: four men, one woman. I’m sure the organizers never even thought about it, but that’s the problem with systemic discrimination. No one notices, because they assume it’s okay for there to be more men than women on a crime writers panel. Or that it’s okay for there to be more male than female police officers. Or fire fighters. Or Cabinet ministers. Or judges.

I’ve decided that from now on, I’m not going to sit on a panel at any writers’ festivals where an attempt has not been made at gender parity. We have a problem; we need to fix it. It starts with us.

Not to put words into Ms. Blair’s mouth, but I sense a strong implication from her piece that she perceives the problem to be an imbalance in judges. She may be right, but the method she uses is more anecdote and gut then evidence, flawed by what seamheads would call a “small statistical sample.” This idea has held onto me for two months because I see this all the time, especially in political discussions, where such samples are too often used to support a feeling arrived at before the evidence was consulted.

Let’s begin with the assumption that there is gender bias in writing awards, a position I have no quarrel with. What I’d really like to know is how to fix it, and to fix it we need to know the root causes. To say “80% of the nominees and 100% of the winners were men, so the fault lies in the composition of the judging panels” is too superficial to have meaning.

Full disclosure: I do not know the answers to these questions, nor do I have a good way to get at them. I am also not suggesting a solution. (Which is good, since I just said I don’t know the answers.) If it is indeed true that intelligence is knowing the right answers and wisdom is knowing the right questions, let’s look for the right questions.

In the seven years cited, male authors accounted for 80% of the Arthur Ellis nominees. What was the percentage by gender (PBG) of the books submitted for consideration? I have no idea, though I doubt 80% were written by men. It would still be good to know. If 80% (or near to it) of the books submitted were by men, the next logical question is, “Why don’t publishers submit more books by women for consideration?”

That immediately suggests, “What is the PBG of all books published that qualify for the award?” If that number is near 80% one might immediately wonder, “Are women published less often than men?” which prompts “Do women submit fewer manuscripts than men?” If the number of manuscripts submitted to publishers is roughly equal—or at least not near an 80-20 split—are men disproportionately represented in the positions that decide which manuscripts to buy?

If so, might that be a sales issue? “What is the PBG of sales relative to books published?” (Normalized to account for discrepancies in publication PBG.) If books by women don’t sell as well on average as books by men, why not? This leads to the last question: Who buys most books and why don’t they buy more books by women?

I’m pretty sure about the answer to one of the above questions, have suspicions about another one or two, and have no idea about the rest. Somewhere there is an organization with the juice to find out. (This strikes me as a great idea for a graduate school study, were I in an appropriate field and not 60 years old.)

The answer is there somewhere. How to fix it will likely be harder to figure. I don’t know much, but what I do know is that we’re not going to fix it by making sure the same numbers of men and women sit on judging panels, as this can lead to thinking that produces a system that resembles quotas. I can’t imagine anyone wants us to ever come to a situation where any part of the consideration comes down to, “Well, a man/woman has won three years in a row so we need to give this one to a woman/man.”

Having said that, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence that something is wrong and that something should probably be done, or at least attempted. We may or may not be smart enough to figure out the answer, but we sure as hell aren’t going to figure it out if we lack the wisdom to ask the right questions.

(Apologies here to Ms. Blair, who I have never met and may well be appalled that I have extrapolated too much from the thoughts expressed in her piece. I mean no disrespect. She just got me to thinking, and, as those who know me well can attest, that’s often a risky proposition.)


pattinase (abbott) said...

What I notice most is that when men list their favorite books/writers they are all or almost all male. When women list, they are much more evenly divided except for,the cozy readers. So I,assume the judges are mostly male.

Peggy Blair said...

Hi Dana,

Thanks for a thoughtful analysis.

I don't actually impute bias to an imbalance in judges (I think, in fact, that there was a strong attempt made by the CWC to have balance in the panels -- this issue has been going on for years). I think systemic bias is more deep-rooted than that because it's unconscious and often well-meaning. When it comes to crime-writing, it can be a bias, for example, in favour of noir (more commonly written by men) over cozies (more commonly written by women), to give an example.

When it comes to literary festivals, granted, my comments are entirely anecdotal. But I did become more attentive to how panels are presented once I realized how skewed the bias in awards was in favour of male writers.

The organizer of the festival I had commented on was in touch with me to say that overall, the festival had an equal number of men to women and that some panels were exclusively female. One of these was the romance fiction panel; I think the other one was YA.I think that kind of says it all. There is no reason to have any panel in a literary festival dominated by one gender over another. The people who attend won't stand back to calculate overall numbers. But they will be left with certain impressions as to who is writing what.

I remain of the view that until the public face of literature reflects both men and women at all levels, we will have a problem. The CWC assures me they are looking at all options, and take it seriously. I'll be interested to see how they make out; it's not an easy problem to resolve.

Kind regards, Peggy

Jack Getze said...

I think which award you talk about matters a great deal. Not many men at all in this list: The Agatha

2015 - Art Taylor, On the Road with Del and Louise
Tessa Arlen, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman
Cindy Brown, Macdeath
Ellen Byron, Plantation Shudders
Julianne Holmes, Just Killing Time
2014 - Terrie Farley Moran, Well Read, Then Dead
Annette Dashoffy, Circle of Influence
Sherry Harris, Tagged for Death
Susan O'Brien, Finding Sky
Tracy Weber, Murder Strikes a Pose
2013 - Leslie Budewitz, Death Al Dente
Shelley Costa, You Cannoli Die Once
Kendel Lynn, Board Stiff
Liz Mugavero, Kneading to Die
LynDee Walker, Front Page Fatality
2012 – Susan M. Boyer, Lowcountry Boil
Duffy Brown, Iced Chiffon
Mollie Cox Bryan, A Scrapbook of Secrets
Erika Chase, A Killer Read
Stephanie Jaye Evans, Faithful Unto Death
2011 – Sara J. Henry, Learning to Swim
Janet Bolin, Dire Threads
Kaye George, Choke
Rochelle Staab, Who Do, Voodoo?
Kari Lee Townsend, Tempest in the Tea Leaves
2010 – Avery Aames, The Long Quiche Goodbye
Laura Alden, Murder at the PTA
Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook (Penguin Press), finalist
Amanda Flower, Maid of Murder
Sasscer Hill, Full Mortality
Alan Orloff, Diamonds for the Dead
2009 – Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Delacorte Press)
Lisa Bork, For Better, for Murder (Midnight Ink)
Meredith Cole, Posed for Murder (St Martins Minotaur)
Elizabeth J. Duncan, The Cold Light of Mourning (St. Martin's Press)
Stefanie Pintoff, In the Shadow of Gotham (Minotaur Books)
2008 – G. M. Malliet, Death of a Cozy Writer (Midnight Ink)
Sarah Atwell, Through a Glass, Deadly (Berkley Trade)
Krista Davis, The Diva Runs Out of Thyme (Penguin Group)
Rosemary Harris, Pushing Up Daisies (Minotaur Books)
Joanna Campbell Slan, Paper, Scissors, Death (Midnight Ink)
2007 – Hank Phillippi Ryan, Prime Time (Harlequin)
Charles Finch, A Beautiful Blue Death (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Beth Groundwater, A Real Basket Case (Five Star Mystery)
Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave (Mira)
Sarah Masters Buckey "The light in the cellar" (American Girl)
2006 – Sandra Parshall, The Heat of the Moon (Poisoned Pen Press)
Jane Cleland, Consigned to Death (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Honora Finkelstein and Susan Smily, The Chef Who Died Sauteing (Hilliard & Harris)
Hailey Lind, Feint of Art (Signet)
Karen MacInerney, Murder on the Rocks (Midnight Ink)

pattinase (abbott) said...

However, the Agatha is for cozy readers, one of the only awards tipped toward female readers. Women write in all of the other subgenres of crime fiction but get nominated far less. Men find it hard to pick up a book with a woman's name on it, I think. My husband excepted. Look at the lists on facebook right now of writers that influenced various people. Many fewer women mentioned.

Dana King said...


Thanks not only for your thoughtful reply, but for taking my post in the spirit in which I intended it. I worried about appropriating your comments when I posted and I’m delighted to see you understand where my thoughts are.

One sentence in your comment struck a nerve with me:

When it comes to crime-writing, it can be a bias, for example, in favour of noir (more commonly written by men) over cozies (more commonly written by women), to give an example.

That is very close to my situation. I’m not a huge reader of noir—especially not of neo-noir—though I do like stories with nourish elements. (What my Francophile daughter and I refer to as “gris,” as opposed to “noir.”) My tastes are pretty well described by Raymond Chandler’s essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” I’m not a fan of puzzle stories, unless they are embedded into a story that exists for more than to solve the puzzle. Animals cannot solve the mystery. I don’t care for amateur sleuths much beyond Sherlock Holmes, who 1.) Isn’t really an amateur, and 2.) existed in a pre-Locard era where the police had to catch up to him. There are a few others, but you can see where this leads.

What I’m getting at is I agree with Peggy’s point I repeated above. It’s not the women. It’s the kinds of stories. I also don’t read many of the excellent male writers of neo-noir. Even though I can appreciate their talent, I don’t care for the stories or some of the conventions of the genre. All readers have their wheelhouses, just as all writers do. Female readers appear to have a bigger wheelhouse than do men. It may be as “simple” as that. (Placing “simple” in quotes because that’s not at all a simple answer.)

Dana King said...


I think your Agatha list shows what Peggy and I were talking about in our comments. I wonder if the answer may be to break out the major awards into more categories, as it’s almost impossible to compare a cat mystery to a Don Winslow epic. They’re apples and oranges. My only fear there is that we’d create genre ghettoes from which some writers would never escape.

Bringing up the Agathas makes another good point. I attended Malice Domestic in 2015. Well-run conference and you’ll never meet nicer people. I was repeatedly struck by how much the readers loved their traditional mysteries, and how I could not have been treated nicer, even though what I wrote was far from their regular taste. That said, by the time I left, I wanted nothing in the so much as to have someone get in my face and ask me “What does Marcellus Wallace look like?”

Dana King said...


Your comment can be empirically tested—not here, bit by someone with the resources—by comparing sales by female writers in a specific genre with sales of female writers in the same genre who do not present themselves as woman, either by writing under pseudonyms or other disguising their names. (SJ Rozan, for example. JA Jance. Anonymous-9.) There would have to be some controls on the data, but there are people who know how to do that for a living.

seana graham said...

As someone who ran the mystery section in the bookstore I worked in for many years, I was a little surprised at these statistics, just because it seemed like there were many female mystery writers that people liked to read. But I realized that I really hadn't considered any hard data. So I just did a web search and discovered this interesting article from Bitch magazine online. It's from 2014 but still probably essentially accurate.

Dana King said...


Thanks for the link to the article. Lots of good stuff there, including hard data. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in this topic.

Ms. Fister did make a couple of related statements that gave me pause. (Full disclosure: Barbara Fister and I were friends on the old Crimespace web site, but have lost touch over the years.) She begins by being surprised to see seven of her top ten in the given year were by men, and ending with an intention to be more aware of the “invisible prompts that tilt [her] reading choices.”

Seven of ten in a given year could be random variation. Even a .250 hitter will have the occasional streak of seven hits in ten at bats. This strikes me pretty clearly as an example of what books matched up most closely with her tastes, and our tastes are our tastes. To reiterate a point I made above and she mentions in the article, I lean toward realism in my crime fiction reading, which gives an amateur sleuth novel a high bar to cross. Amateurs don’t solve major crimes. Cops do. Detectives can. Journalists might. Housewives do not. Antique store owners do not. Cats do not.

This is not to say such books cannot be well written and entertaining. Many clearly are, the prima facie case for that opinion being they sell like crazy. They’re just not to my taste, which doesn’t make me right. (Looking at this from the other side, I’ve never had a more unpleasant reading experience than Blood Meridian, and Cormac McCarthy is one of the most important and influential writers of his generation.) It also doesn’t excuse the last of reviews.

I’m on the brink of a swamp here, debating the worthiness of personal taste and perceived “importance” when discussing reviews and award nominations. It’s time for me to step back and gather my thoughts. This may well be fodder for another blog post of its own.

seana graham said...

I look forward to that post, Dana.

I think Patti Abbott's comment early on here is pretty important, although I have no hard data to support it, and that's that women are more likely to read men's fiction than men are to read women's. Many of the men I know are exceptions to this rule, but I do think that women, perhaps because they've had to historically, are more willing to reach out empathetically to understand traditionally male interests than men are to embrace female perspectives. Witness cheerleaders.

I'm an across the board reader, and though I haven't read any cat mysteries, I did read a dog mystery by J.F. Englert (a man, by the way) which I found quite engaging, so for me it's really a case of "Never say never."

It's one of the mysteries of life that a common male complaint is that they just don't understand the ways of women, and yet so many men take little time to find out what women actually have to say. You would think that might be the logical first step.