Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How to fix gender bias in book journalism

As my jet lag recedes and my brain returns I'm beginning to catch up on reading. Over the weekend I encountered Alison Flood's Guardian piece on gender bias in book journalism:

Vida, an American organisation supporting women in the literary arts, has compiled statistics on the gender split in books coverage at publications including the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, each of which showed a substantial bias towards using male reviewers and covering male authors.

At the LRB last year 16% of reviewers were women (29 out of 184) and 26% of authors reviewed (58 out of 221); at the New York Review of Books 21% of 254 reviews were by women, 17 of 92 authors reviewed were female and 13% of 152 articles were by women. Of 1,163 reviews in the TLS in 2011, 30% were by women, and of 1,314 authors reviewed, 25% were women. Granta was the only publication to have more female contributors, at 53%, but much of this was down to its women-only feminism issue.

No surprises here: reviews in top-notch literary journals are still overwhelmingly written by men about men. (But go read the Vida piece anyway--they do great work. And if you're unsure of my feelings, and a few thoughts, on the subject, read here and here.)

Nothing new, then. But this time around I was struck by the attitudes of various editors. Most of them seem to be sighing, and trying: to be aware of the bias, to compensate for it, to recruit more women. Some, however, appear not to be too bothered; I read their quotes and imagine them shrugging, as if to say, Well, women have to drag themselves up the heap, and when they do we'll pay attention.

I understand both perspectives. Women most definitely need to write more, submit more, and risk more. But men need to help. They, we, all of us, need to be active and proactive. Let me explain. In the interest of getting to my point, I've boiled down my thinking to a simplistic statement which, inevitably, will seem--to many--to be a sweeping generalisation. You can either take my word for it or, if you need a step-by-step guide through the thinking of Feminism 101 and the mechanics of the patriarchy (oh, yes, it's still very much alive and nasty), go do some learning, e.g. Finally, A Feminist 101 Blog.

Men grow up being encouraged to take risks--physical and intellectual--in a culture of competition and hierarchy. Being singular and above the herd is a goal. Women are raised to collaborate and fit in. We are taught to value belonging and being liked. We learn that to stand out from the herd is to lose the shelter of the herd.

To many men, therefore, I'm guessing it's often not that big a deal to write an essay critical of another writer, or to write a monograph on some weighty intellectual subject in which they have a modicum of expertise. If they get attacked in print for it, who cares? It's just a variation of an intellectual shoving match. They learnt the rules of that game in school.

For a woman, on the other hand, it can be dangerous. Women voicing opinions are routinely attacked. (Think about the recent Rush Limbaugh attack on law student Sandra Fluke. Or go read John Scalzi's blog post on how women are treated badly in social media.) As a result, women generally feel that they need greater qualifications and deeper experience to be allowed (oh, yes, I use the word advisedly) similar authority.

To change this imbalance, a lot of people need to do a lot of work. Editors of all stripes must reach out personally to women writers; they must actively encourage women to take risks. Acquiring editors at publishing houses, particularly non-fiction editors, must cajole women to write something; they must help women get over their diffidence. Fellow writers--and friends and lovers and family of writers--must support women writers. This support should be verbal, emotional, and practical. (For some examples, read this Guardian article on counter-balancingthe old boys' network.) All these supporters should understand that many women will be (irritatingly) reluctant to respond. Supporters must persist.

Most of all, women need to be brave. Yes, people might say mean things about you. Yes, they might not like you. Yes, there might even be lunatics out there who will threaten you--but you will have a lot of support. And it (mostly likely) won't kill you.

I understand why some women are reluctant to put themselves forward, I really am. (I taught women's self-defence for many years. I'm cognizant of the danger, real and imagined.) But if you've ever hesitated to write a Wikipedia article, hesitated to write a review, hesitated to apply to that editorial job/promotion/pay rise, stop it. Stop hesitating. Stop second-guessing yourself. Stop gaming it out to the nth level. Get over it. Just do it. Take the plunge. Nothing will change until you step up. So take your place, don't expect to be given it. Own your expertise, don't expect to be led every step of the way. Accept the compliment (or the pay rise, or the promotion or the help) and don't make others work so hard to give it to you.

And on the way, don't hesitate to name behaviour, don't hesitate to demand help. I assume you have love at home. What you need in the world is respect. Take it. Own it. Demand it. Accept it.

Be brave.



  1. Excellent post. What is amazing, is that with not even all that much effort, we can make a difference. The Limbaugh Effect should be proof of that. Expressing in no uncertain terms the inappropriateness of someone's action, or inaction, and the need for change, can facilitate that change in quick, and measurable ways.

  2. Quick correction: her name is Sandra Fluke, not Sarah.

  3. Karen, yes. Step up, speak out. It works.

    Anon, thanks. Fixed.

  4. I vote with dollars: for a decade or more, I've only purchased books with a woman author (that is, novels by a woman, short story collections that include at least 2 stories by women).

  5. I still get so angry. These brilliant articles keep appearing and keep appearing. How long?

  6. Kai, good for you. But we also need to get more proactive further up the production ladder.

    barbara, I'd say a generation. Probably. With concerted effort. But, hey, let's plan for the worst but hope for the best!

    1. Nicola, you're right that women need to be brave and jump out there -- and you're a great role model on that score. But there's something else going on, something that requires editors and critics and teachers to wake up and pay attention: Men get more recognition at every stage in the process. They get the mentors who show them the ropes, they get the teachers who tell them they can be good if they do the work. Anna Fels writes about the importance of this recognition in her excellent book, Necessary Dreams. Fels, a psychiatrist, also talks about women's ambition -- that's the root of the title. But she uses science education in particular to show how women do not get the same encouragement as men, the kind of encouragement that keeps one fighting one's way through the academic jungle. I've been raving about this book for years -- I even reviewed it over on the Broad Universe Broadsheet. I think it's still in print.

      Understanding that women aren't getting their fair share of recognition will make us braver and also encourage us to make sure we offer recognition to other women.

    2. Nancy, yes. And women need to learn to accept the recognition they do get, and be willing to stand out from the crowd.