Posted by: biblioglobal | March 14, 2013

Why we need women’s prizes for fiction

The Song Of Achilles

Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize

I’m flabbergasted.

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:

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.



  1. How odd, I was thinking the other day if these had improved for women in the publishing world. Sad to say, not much. Thanks for the information. And nicely timed.

    • There certainly hasn’t been a noticeable trend of improvement over the last three years. It’s possible that if you looked back a decade or two the current numbers might actually constitute progress. (Scary as that is.)

  2. I felt like you did, til I looked at the prize winners and shortlists and realized how few of them I had read. Combine that with the fact that I have read many Booker winners and I realized I really needed to balance my reading more. . And I tend to pick up literary prize winners (or books on the 1001 list), assuming the books must be worth reading, so if women writing lit fic aren’t winning prizes (or getting reviewed in the Times book review…) I will likely assume they aren’t of the caliber of books I put my time into. I also think I partly fear when I pick up a book by a woman that I will end up with chick-lit, which I don’t enjoy, rather than literary fiction which I do UGH. Yes. We need the Orange Prize (or the Women’s Prize for Fiction or whatever we need to call it).

    • I think your comments demonstrate exactly why it is important to do something about these biases in reviewing and prize-winning. It really does have an effect on what people see as worthwhile literature.

  3. It’s shocking isn’t it? Especially since Vida has been doing these numbers for several years now and they have not gotten better. Obviously the problem is not taken seriously which is even more disturbing.

    • It really is shocking. I think there’s room for reasonable debate as to why things are so bad and what should be done about it. But it’s clear that something is very wrong. Unfortunately, the debate about the cause may prevent people from stepping up and taking the problem seriously.

  4. Mind if I reblog this? Would love to have my readers read this!

  5. Men and some women just don’t take women seriously except as appendages to their own lives. Publishers in the US and perhaps elsewhere have also done books by women a disservice by trying to develop a predictable genre of shallow “women’s books.” Many books by women are much much more than that and deserve to be read by everyone who wants to understand what it means to be a woman, not a man, in today’s world. I will post more on this next week.

    There are lists and blogs to help anyone interested in reading fine literature by women and not chick lit.

    • I would argue that the problem isn’t the publishing of the genre, so much as the naming of the genre. Many people enjoy reading the light social drama/comedy books about women’s lives. So I don’t see a reason why publishers shouldn’t publish them. The problem I see is with naming a genre with a gender. There are plenty of genres whose readership skews male, but so far as I know none of them are labeled ‘guy lit’.

      • An excellent and very important point. I wish I had read it before I posted my on longer piece on this issue at Maybe i can go back and work it in since I too like casual, comfortable reading.

  6. I read an interesting article recently in Mslexia magazine, who also provide some statistics on readership, which shows that women read twice as many books as men, written I believe by the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday about writing reviews and the lack of female representation. She agreed, but also mentioned that she herself commissioned more men because they were proactively suggesting titles and offering to review them. She asked for the talented women reviewers to please approach her, as they did and she did take them on.

    However Amanda Craig’s experience has been that many Editors just turn her down, she used to successfully review Ian McEwan’s books, until he won the Booker.

    We definitely need a Women’s Prize for Fiction, it is one of the few inclusive awards around, open to all women writing in the English language of any nationality and it is good to see the long list has expanded this year to 20 titles, even if there isn’t time to actually read them all before the next announcement. I have read 3 already and look forward to reading more or at least other reviews by passionate bloggers and reviewers before the shortlist is announced.

    You can read Amanda Craig’s interesting article here.

    Great post!

    • Thanks for the information and the link to Amanda Craig’s article. I was interested to see that she says that The Guardian and The Daily Mail, which didn’t show up in the Vida study, show more gender balance.

      It seems to me that women asking less and editorial bias could both play a role in generating the unequal numbers. Furthermore, there’s likely to be a positive feedback loop between the two in which women asking less could make editors less likely to think of women as reviewers and editorial bias could discourage women and make them ask less.

  7. […] The following post is from the Biblioglobal blog, which I follow. I was a little horrified to read about the state of women in literature, but certainly can say from personal experience that the preponderance of male award winners, reviewers, and reviewees in places like the NYT Book Review has lead to my knowing male authors much better than female ones. You can find the original post (and check out more of her blog) here: Why we need women’s prizes for fiction. […]

  8. Yes, I agree with everything above. I’ve been asked the same question and initially struggled with any type of reasonable response other than stating the fact that female writers have generally been relegated to writers of fluff, or really great, but not so great that they’re mentioned on MUST READ lists with all the other DUDEs. Anyway. After reviewing the vida stats, I was shocked. In most cases it’s not even a small gap, for both reviews and reviewers. There’s absolutely no way to justify it. And if someone says they can, I’d definitely be open to listening (for the laughs). Great post!

    • Thanks!

      I was expecting there to be some difference, but nothing like what the statistics showed. At least the next time we get asked, we’ll have clear evidence to respond with.

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