I consider myself a reasonably well-informed feminist. I know the statistics about wage gaps, literacy rates, and the leaky pipeline of women in science. I’m not an expert by any means, but I pay attention. It turns out though that when it comes to gender equity in the literary world, I was completely naive.
Last year I mentioned the Orange Prize to my boyfriend, explaining that it was specifically for books written by women. He questioned whether in current times it made sense to have an award specifically for women and whether women were still at a disadvantage when it came to literature. Although I argued that having a women’s prize was still of value, my thinking was that the gender balance was probably a lot less skewed in literature than in my own field of science. After all I could name lots of very successful and talented female authors just off the top of my head.
Then yesterday I came across this compilation of the representation of women in a variety of top literary forums: http://www.vidaweb.org/three-years-to-stump-and-stack-and-stem
In publication after publication, women are under-represented, often dramatically under-represented, as writers, as book reviewers, and as authors of books under review.
In fact, the under-representation is not all that different from that seen in science. Last fall, Nature, one of the top-echelon scientific journals, published a self-analysis of their track record. Amongst other data, they reported that in the previous two years only 19% of externally-written Comment and World View articles were written by women. I’m picking out this particular statistic because it seems a reasonable equivalent to the role of book reviewer- providing invited commentary on someone else’s work.
Harper, London Review of Books, New Republic, New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic all had a proportion of female reviewers around or below the 20% mark observed in Nature. The New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement did marginally better, reaching the 25-30% range and Boston Review leads the pack at around 40%. The gender percentages for the authors of books reviewed are similarly abysmal.
So, yes, I’d say there is still a need for prizes dedicated to raising the profile of women in literature.
In publishing their numbers, Nature titled the editorial “Nature’s Sexism” and gave serious consideration to what they could do better. They observed that although women were well represented amongst the editors, there was an unconscious bias in which male scientists were more likely to come to mind than women. They concluded:
We therefore believe that there is a need for every editor to work through a conscious loop before proceeding with commissioning: to ask themselves, “Who are the five women I could ask?”
Editors of literary publications would do well to ask themselves the same.