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Gender in Writing, Reviewing and Reading

(As Synova pointed out in her comment, we need to let people know who is writing the post. So I’ve added this.) Rowena here …

I’ve come across some posts and articles recently on gender bias in writing or awards. In fact, I’m currently doing a series of interviews of female fantasy writers to counter an apparent bias where fantasy appears to be a bit of a boy’s club in the US and the UK.  ( I hasten to add it is not that way in Australia, the majority of our wonderful fantasy writers are female, which is why this discovery surprised me).

As best selling fantasy author Trudi Canavan said in her interview:

‘When I considered the ratio of male to female overseas authors I knew of, there didn’t seem to be a big imbalance. Then I learned that I would be attending a Mega Signing in the UK as part of the publicity tour for The Rogue in May, and that I was the lone woman in a pack of eight male writers. That certainly made me sit up and take notice!’

I began to wonder if the imbalance might be in the perception and not the reality, meaning that there are plenty of female fantasy writers out there, they just don’t get reviewed, or promoted as much. Then there was this interesting article on Strange Horizons.  It’s a break down of the male/female balance of reviewers on diferent sites and in magazines, along with the books reviewed by gender. (I know, you could get lost in the statistics). To quote Strange Horizons:

‘Across all venues, 29.6% of books reviewed were by women, compared to 70.4% by men; and 27.6% of reviewers were women, compared to 72.4% men.’

And it’s not just in our genre. As you can see from this article on Ms Magazine Blog. And here is their source article, VIDA, Women in literary arts.  According to their number crunching The New York Review of Books consists of 39 women reviewers and 200 men and in 2010 they reviewed 59 books by women and 306 by men.

I’m sure somewhere out there is a list of how many books are printed each year, in each genre with a breakdown of the gender. I found this on Broad Universe’s site:

From Locus (Dec 2007), U.S. Publishers for October 2007 through September 2008. Approximately 1/3 are reprints or reissue editions:

  • 695 female authors/editors (39.7%)
  • 1019 male authors/editors (58.3%)
  • 35 unknown (anonymous, gender concealed by author) (2%)
  • Total: 1749

That looks to be around a 60 – 40 split between male and female authors. Of course that is just speculative fiction and there is the romance genre where female authors outnumber males by a large margin.

The disparity in gender seems to start very young. I found this article in the Guardian UK. To quote:

‘Looking at almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children’s books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.’

They also found that while the gender disaparity was reduce in the 1990s, it remained high in animal characters with a disparity of nearly two to one. Does this mean that the default setting for our society is masculine? (You’ll notice the first picture of the child on the beach is male. Just to even them up here’s a girl on a beach <grin>).

And the curious thing is that even as I’m gathering this information together, I feel as if I have to insert  disclaimer. I am not biased against men. I’m not a feminist, I’m a people-ist.

So there you are. Were you surprised by the statistics? Do you think books by male authors in our genre get more review space?

  1. Synova #

    (I think that you all need a better way of attaching the name of the author to posts.)

    In any case, do you know what I think?

    I think that men, in general, tend to be more comfortable with the notion of production for the sake of production and tend to have a feeling of entitlement to success.

    Let me be clear that I don’t think this is a bad thing. And it could be that women with a similar attitude are all writing romances, which is where the sales are.

    But I don’t think that women writing romances have that attitude either, though the successful ones might. The social dynamics that I observed when I belonged to our local RWA club was one where the young lady brash enough to sell a three book deal to Avon at the age of 24 and get up in front and dispute the “write what you love” saw, had to tone it down to get along.

    What I would like to see when someone starts to talk about women represented in fiction, is someone to compare production, not just gender, and to compare attitudes toward writing as either an art or as an economic endeavor.

    May 17, 2011
    • Hi Synova,

      Rowena, here.
      I’d forgotten on this site we don’t have the … Monday- Dave, Tuesday- Rowena … sign. (Will update the post with my name).

      In my series of interviews I’ve asked the female fantasy writers if they think gender makes any difference to the type of book the author writes and if they antcipate certain things when they buy a book by a male or female writer.

      I didn’t ask them their attitude towards writering. I rather naively thought we were all doing it for love,Since there’s no money in it, except for about 3% of the authors. (Caveat – mid list romance writers can make a living from writing).

      May 17, 2011
      • Synova #

        I don’t really have any data, and hardly have anecdote. It just seems to me, is all. It seems to me that my husband isn’t the only man I know with an “it’s important because I want to do it” attitude. Now, I could fuss, but the fact of it is that his “hobbies” have amounted to self-education that pays the mortgage. But the expenses came before that, as did all of the “my time” he took and still takes. So I wonder if it’s just me, or if it’s possibly a statistical thing trending toward gender, that my inclination is to view my interests as rightly less important than the important things I ought to be doing. So I pay attention to the extent that I can and even if what I observe doesn’t correlate with gender, it does seem to correlate somewhat with success.

        I cringe, frankly, when some of the local writers I know, without a publishing credit to speak of, write how-to-write books and give workshops, and self-publish the how-to and start their own publishing company to publish their fiction, and there is nothing bad about the how-to that I can see and nothing bad about their books but I’d say, three of four at least, or even more than that, are men. So do I cringe because I’m Norwegian and constitutionally constrained from putting myself forward, or is it because I’m female? Certainly women are not barred or even discouraged from doing what they’ve done. So why isn’t the ratio more even?

        John Ringo stopped by rec.arts.sf.composition one time – I might have brought up the new (and short lived) Harlequin Bombshell line, or someone else did – and he was all… Hey, I could do that, maybe I ought to. Meanwhile at the local RWA romance club the ladies are talking about “writing the book of your heart.”

        I may be wrong to do it, but I interpret one attitude as “male” and the other one as “female.”

        May 17, 2011
      • Rowena — I make a living from writing. I will grant you it’s about the same living I’d make from say working in a bookstore, not the living I would make from, say, managing a department. However, most years I make enough I could support myself if I were single and childless.

        May 17, 2011
      • Synova — you are SO right. So incredibly right. I know this because the year my middle-school child had to be brought home to be homeschooled (bullying, also “twice special” high IQ and sensory issues. Now almost just high IQ, as the sensory issues seem to be receding with growth) I had an 11 yo and a 15 yo. I was writing six books and homeschooling and ALL my male writer friends said, “Lock yourself in, ignore the kids, buy pizza.” They have NO clue. NONE. Of course my career, though it brings in money was less important than the kids. And yeah, I STILL — because it didn’t pay for so many years — put it last.

        May 17, 2011
      • Sarah, maybe, it is different here in Australia. I know lots of romance writers who make a living. One who wrote category said she made the equivalent of her previous job as a school principal.

        The spec fic genre writers I know would all love to ditch their paying job so they can concentrate on their writing.

        May 17, 2011
    • Synova said: ‘So I wonder if it’s just me, or if it’s possibly a statistical thing trending toward gender, that my inclination is to view my interests as rightly less important than the important things I ought to be doing. ‘

      I feel this way. I have to be sure I’ve done al lthe things that need to be done, before I take time out to write. eg. washing, cooking, minimal cleaning. Now that the kids are bigger I encourage them to cook and do their own washing.

      May 17, 2011
    • Synovaa said:
      So do I cringe because I’m Norwegian and constitutionally constrained from putting myself forward, or is it because I’m female?

      There might be due, in part, to culture. As an Australian coming from a culture where we have the Tall Poppy syndome – we cut someone down if they get too big for their boots – the idea of self promotion is something I have to come at from an angle.

      May 17, 2011
  2. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book revue, certainly not often enough to judge the gender balance of the books covered. So I won’t opine on that matter.

    But . . . the gender balance of main character animals?

    Umm, if the book under consideration has any connection to biology, the life stages of males tend to be more exciting than the females. I speak as a girl who grew up on horse books. The females tend to stay with the herd, the young males get kicked out by the dominent male. The toughened up not-so-young male returns to fight the dominent male. Instant story. A loose young filly just gets scooped up by the first stallion to spot her. Prides of lions? Assuming the cubs were old enough to run for it and survive, rather than get killed by the new “stepfather,” again, the young male character can return and kick the bad guys ass. Lionesses don’t do that. Unless Dave says so. Dogs, wolves, foxes. The female, realistically is going to be home with the cubs RSN. Unless the writer wants to write about a beta wolfess in a pack. Or ignore estrous and reproductive issues.

    Besides, everyone know stallions are irresistable to girl readers. 😉

    Actually, I think girls and women are more likely to identify with a male character, than boys and men with a female character. Honor Harrington fans may disagree. But a default to male character, yes, I can definitely see the reason for that.

    May 17, 2011
    • Pam,

      Often the author isn’t writing a realistic story about horses, for instance, they’ll be using an animal to tell a story because that way you remove race and ethnocity. But there is still gender.

      The Guardian article on chidlren’s books addresses your point about boys not wanting to read female characters.

      May 17, 2011
  3. Synova #

    I don’t think that boys mind girl characters, but I do think that you’d see a girl reading Percy Jackson long before you’d see a boy reading The Babysitter’s Club.

    When it comes to gaming, teenaged and 20ish boys play female avatars a *lot*. Tomb Raider was played far more by male persons than female persons. Etc. etc.

    May 17, 2011
    • That’s a really interesting point, Synova. But isn’t the Tomb Raider character just a guy with breasts? I don’t know if you clicked through the link on my last post – People and their game avatars. There were a couple of instances of males playing gorgeous kick-ass female characters.

      My sons tell me they aren’t worried by the gender of the character in a book, but then I don’t think my sons are typical males, so I can’t judge by their reaction.

      May 17, 2011
      • Synova #

        Possibly Lara Croft is a guy with breasts. I think she’s an important illustration of the fact that boys don’t mind identifying with a female character, though. In a first person game (and Lara isn’t alone) that’s you on the screen. The ultimate Mary Sue. IMO, the fact that guys will happily, or even preferably, use female (no matter how anatomically unlikely) avatars makes the argument that guys don’t like reading books where they’re supposed to identify with a female POV doubtful. At the very least it suggests that a higher standard of evidence is in order.

        A person could say that Honor Harrington is a guy with breasts. David Weber was the GOH at Bubonicon a few years ago and it was all about how he wrote such strong female characters. On one of the panels another “big” author asked him (IIRC) something to the tune of, Honor Harrington is wonderful, but essentially you’ve got her doing male sorts of things in a male way and wouldn’t it be nice to put this woman in a female context concerning female sorts of things. Yes, yes, major paraphrase! Weber went on to explain, or try, that in his opinion military leadership skills *are* feminine, in a classical sense as they involve communication and consensus building, etc., IIRC, of course. I’m fairly confident of his point, which was that the really good male military commanders were strong in these female areas.

        The person who asked is a fabulous author herself, but I had to wonder if books only counted in the “girls” column after they’d made themselves unappealing to men entirely.

        Which brings me back to the Babysitter’s Club and Lifetime Television.

        May 17, 2011
    • Interesting comments from Weber. The whole leadership dynamic is something I’ve done a bit of research on. Why will people follow someone and give their life for an idea. Scary stuff.

      With regard to games, the player isn’t expected to identify with the avatar as they would with a character in a book. The avatar is essentially a shell that they put themselves in. This raises the question, how many men would like to try out being a gorgeous female, as long as she is powerful and shoots straight.

      May 17, 2011
      • In a game, the player is in control of what the avatar does. In a book, the character cannot be controlled, although the “icky” parts can be skipped. Reading and playing are thus different experiences. However, I haven’t researched the subject, and a few anecdotes are definitely not data.

        May 17, 2011
      • Synova #

        All my game avatars are female and I have to say, I have no idea what guys like, but I definitely like to try out being a gorgeous, improbably proportioned female, who is powerful and can shoot straight. 😉

        May 17, 2011
      • Pam and Synova, I lecuture at a college that teaches multi media, game design and 3 D animation. I mainly teach narrative, but there are some areas og game design that overlap.

        The avatar is designed to be an outter shell, which has minimal back story (onlyenough to get the game going – They killed your fmaily, go out and seek revenge) and the player provides the characterisation. If you can call it that.

        We’d all like to be gorgeous, female amazon straight shooters!

        May 17, 2011
  4. I’m kinda surprised by these numbers. And I would dearly love to see the methodology employed. If you ask me to name off my ten favorite writers (who I don’t represent, and aren’t on this blog) currently writing and who i’ve read at least once in the past 5 years, I’d be surprised if it were even half male.

    It should be noted that the female characters most men like or at least identify with/respect tend to be ones who lean towards “tom boy”, Honor Harrington, Kerowyn, Cordelia Naismith, Lara Croft are all ladies who kick ass and smack around delusions. They don’t wait for others to do for them if its something they can or should be doing. The fact that to one degree or another the characters are all viewed as attractive is helpful too, but isn’t a leading factor. They are decisive, which is something guys dig.

    May 17, 2011
    • O’Mike,

      This was just what I was saying about Tomb Raider.

      I get frustrated with characters who don’t take control of their life, no matter what the genre or gender. (Big generalisation coming) I imagine a male, who has never experienced the limmitations that society still places on females, would find a female character who was trying to work around these limitations, really annoying. He might not even understand the subtle pressures to conform that shape the character’s behaviour.

      May 17, 2011
  5. warpcordova #


    If you want to have other people as contributors, have them sign in under their own account names on WordPress. This’ll allow for the identity of the poster to be the person actually making the post, instead of forcing the author to identify who they are in the first line.

    To do this, go into Dashboard, click “Users”, add user to the community by their login email for WordPress, decide what level of user they’re going to be (editor is a good one), then click “add”. Then they can log in to their WordPress account and see the various accounts they have. Makes it easier so that the admin password doesn’t get passed around like a French hooker in Spain.


    May 17, 2011
    • Thanks, Jason!

      I knew there was a way of doing it, but I couldn’t remember how I did it last time I set up a shared blog. Brain fog …

      May 17, 2011
    • Kate Paulk #

      I am logged in as myself. I was when I posted, too. So that’s not the answer 🙂

      I’ll just attach my name somewhere when I post on Thursday.

      May 17, 2011
      • I think it’s this design. I might poke around if I have time.

        May 17, 2011
  6. Rowena,

    I’m a black man who grew up in a town where I eventually became _the_ black vote. I think I have a fairly in depth understanding of subtle and not so subtle forces of society driving one to conform. I’ve been told “you’re not really black because…” more than a few times. For some odd reason when I asked them for help filling out my application to join the Klan they got very nonplused, which seemed hopelessly unfair to me.

    But Tomb Raider iirc starts off as a comic book or a video game and is then made into a movie. None of these three media is famous for good character depth, and since her main purpose is to be the avatar in a first person shooter detailed depth of character is relatively unimportant. But comparing her to the other three ladies I mentioned is the type to let life run them over, yet each is unmistakeably feminine. Most guys, even the “metrosexuals” don’t really identify with characters like say Kathy from Wuthering Heights because guys value action over appearance, and even the guys who go to great lengths over their appearance tend to do it for the accomplishment and the potential advantages.

    May 17, 2011
  7. Rowena,
    Having done my share of conventions, I have to file this under lies, damn lies and statistics. Sorry, but ALMOST every editor in sf/f is female. The few that aren’t are always first targets in layoffs, so the trend keeps reinforcing. Also, walking down the shelves of sf/f in the states at least, it’s ALL female. Yes, there is a “glass ceiling effect” I’ve noticed, where more males are bestsellers. My opinion on this? We lose vast chunks of our lives to child care and they don’t. Even those who are married and with children. No, it’s no point wailing. It is what it is. We FEEL differently. CHild raising for US is a contact sport. Also, the other thing is that in my observation male authors have more trouble breaking in, so they’re held to a higher standard. That might be it. Or it might be the thing that the Harvard guy got slammed for saying and yes it’s true. Heinlein said that most women (like most men) behave like children, but we have more range. He had it upside down. We have less range — statistically that is — women tend to cluster in the center of any characteristic, good or bad. IQ, aggression, etc, most of us fit right around “average”. For males they will have the extremes and very few in the middle. We could be seeing that vis a vis bestsellers. Perhaps the stinkier sales numbers also belong to males, who knows? As for reading/selling female characters… well, again, what I’ve observed is that it’s EASIER to sell a female action character than a male. I used to and perhaps still do belong to Broad Universe but I haven’t checked in with them in a while, so I can’t tell you what their methodology or Locus’ methodology was but this doesn’t pass the smell test. The few male “editors” I know are interns and flunkies at the publishing companies.

    May 17, 2011
    • There are definitnely more female editors in publishing. I read an article a few years ago bemoaning the fact that editros get treated like dirt, do a huge amount of work and don’t get the big paychecks commensurate with their time, while males tend to fill the highest positions in the industry. (Can’t remember where I saw this).

      But it wouldn’t surprise me, as there are still very few women in the top positions in any companies, let alone publishing. Due, as you say to the choices we make. Let’s see do I invest time in the future (children) or fleeting temporary status? That’s a hard one.

      Even if there are more female action characters being published, the number of reviewers broken down in gender and the number of books reviewed by author broken down into gender remains the same.

      May 17, 2011
      • Actually, three of the houses I publish with have women at the very top.

        On the Romance side, it’s SOLID females. The Harlequin party REALLY was 300 women dancing to “It’s raining men.” I was wearing jeans and so I got hit upon, in the fog of dance and desperation… 😉 Weird place.

        May 17, 2011
  8. O’Mike, you must have been a terror growing up. Probably still are.

    Yes, Tomb Raider serves a purpose. I have a friend who happens to be female who writers for games and plays a lot of games and she gets really frustrated by the portrayal of femals in games.

    Breasts that size? You’re kidding. She couldn’t stand up!

    May 17, 2011
    • Terror? I prefer “amplifier of the human experience” :-p

      And Piffle, most of the women in my family have had breasts larger than Crofts by 14.

      May 17, 2011
      • LOL. My daughter is in the same boat. It’s the exagerated proportions that get to me.

        May 17, 2011
      • 🙂 many men have bigger breasts than Lara Croft. Some of them cannot stand up.

        May 17, 2011
    • Dave, we can’t take you anywhere!

      May 17, 2011
      • Actually he’s pretty useful. When a con we were at was dithering about taking guests to dinner, I just reminded them he had some good family recipes for long pork…

        May 18, 2011
  9. Kate Paulk #

    Genre is a marketing designation, not… oh. Gender. Not genre. Nevermind….

    May 17, 2011
    • LOL, Kate.

      Did you see the kerfuffle in the UK about China Meiville calling literary books jut another genre – LitFic?

      May 17, 2011
      • Kate Paulk #

        Much as it pains me to agree with China Meiville (don’t like the books, like the quoted opinions even less), I have to agree on that one. LitFic is just another genre, and most people have known that for years.

        May 17, 2011
    • We had this discussion with our supervisors when we were doing a writing Masters. We were all spec fic and we argued that literary books were just another genre. they cam eback with -‘Literary books are GOOD writing.’

      And we all burst out laughing.

      May 17, 2011
      • No, they are genre. You have to target it a certain way. Also, what a freind told me years ago is that no literary book earns more than 10k. Well, that was ten years ago. Probably 5 to 6k now…

        May 18, 2011
  10. I always have to smile when the gender discrimination (and required áffirmative action’ inevitably) old chestnut comes out. I always say the same thing: “be careful what you wish for, you may get it.” Personally – and as a male writer whose last solo book (DRAGON’S RING) had a teen female principal POV character (about which I have had not a complaint yet from my very mixed audience, except ‘when can we have the next!)- I’m all for judging people on merit not gender, but there are always a few ‘injured victims’ claiming prejudice… Well, by all means let’s have quota system. But, as a cautionary tale: the Physics department of a prestigeous College came under fire from campus feminists for its student composition which was about 85% male. The Head of department said he would be happy to have a 50% quota system in place… as long as his was not the only department to do this. A sudden deathly silence ensued… because as a principally liberal arts college, the college was already more than 75% female students, with some humanities – far larger than the little physics department, had no males at all. Moreover as the College was pretty full – the only way to get ‘equal’ representation, would be to send away students to make space for the representative numbers of the of the other gender. Some 35% of the male physics students would have go, to make way for some female students, presumabably given a leg-up to make it into the class. And so would 50% of the female Womyn’s Studies class – and they’d have to FIND 50% male students who wanted to do it.
    Sauce that goose thinks appropriate for the gander is less appealing when the goose realize it get the same.
    So: let’s look at this in writer/ editor / critic figures…
    Firstly, let’s assume these are accurate. They are of course of numbers of writers/editors/critics — not measures of numbers of actual copies sold/read. Given the immense popularity of books by JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer and the bestseller structure of publishing, the actual gender demographic of number of books sold (by men/with male leads or the opposite) has no real relationship with number of titles or authors. Given the RWA figures of IIRC 52% of fiction sales, and 80% of their readership being female (and 99.9% of books being female authored or closet male, and all female lead) before you even start on other genre figures… +50% are already female written and 40% have female leads. That means to achieve parity… er. Well YOU ask half the romance writers to stand down to fulfil the quota (because why should one genre be subject to quota and affirmative action and not another?)

    But let’s say you liten to the loud chorus saying they’re a special case (why I cannot see). WE don’t do womyns Studies (or write romance) we demand parity in Physics (or sf). And the Physics prof/sf editors shrug and say so be it, and because the pie is only so big, turf out some of the younger male newbies they would accept, and take 70% female applicants to rebalance the figures. (because they can’t get rid of the older ones -they sell well). And then we hit the second flaw in these stats… They’re not broken down into age cohorts. You see I will give you long odds givn history that the 60-70 age group is 75%male, the 70+ is 85% male … with the obvious corrollary that the younger cohorts are gradually more balanced and larger, with 30-40 year old being largest, quite possibly with the youngest being more female heavy. Now lets assume we’ve undertaken some serious affirmative action…(which can only happen in any major degree in the youngest cohort) year after year and 10 years has past. Right, here is your homework. What is the male: female ratio now? To save you heavy thinking – you’ve now got a stong female cohort, that will continue to skew your figures in favor of females for the next 30 years at least, even if you then go to strict 50:50 intake. If you choose to correct this immediately in the same way as you just did for females (ie heavy bias of new intake toward males), you’ll take the system into a series of pedulums from one exteme to the other.
    If there is a 60:40 bias, given that it was 90:10 50 years ago, the pedulum is in fact already probably past 50:50 in the younger cohorts. Managing these things toward fastest sustainable equity is very major math. Otherwise you’re making the problem worse and recurrent…

    So: by all means. Cry discrimination. Demand affirmative action… you may get it. Be prepared for those on the wrong side of the equation to demand it in their turn soon. Or you could just try for a fair on merit as much as possible environment. I certainly know enough female authors who don’t need any help beyond a fair go.

    Awards… well if men had over 70% of sales and had men-only-need-apply awards… do you think anyone might find this unfair? As far as I know there are no men-only-need-apply awards, and I would certainly boycott any such discrimination. I’m sure women would do the same, right?

    May 18, 2011
    • Gee, Dave. I think you might have missed my, I’m a people-ist claim.

      May 18, 2011
      • Kate Paulk #

        Actually, I think Dave was pointing out the flaws with the kind of statistics you’re looking at, Rowena. I’ve done enough math to know you can lie very convincingly with statistics – and how you do it.

        Those numbers you quoted might be accurate – or they might be biased in any number of subtle or not-subtle ways. Without knowing the methodology behind how the numbers were obtained and the methods used to generate the statistics, it’s impossible to tell.

        Say you were going to sample gender balance in the University of Queensland. Depending on how you got your numbers, you could get very different results. If you sat between the Physics and Chem buildings and counted students passing, you’d get a much higher number of male students than if you parked outside the English department. Both sets of numbers would be accurate – but the weightings would be biased. And if you didn’t account for that by parking somewhere neutral to do your counting, like the path from the Dutton Park ferry, you could get totally the wrong idea.

        There’s a reason for the saying “Lies, damn lies, and statistics”, and sadly, most statistics used to argue about gender these days are very much in that category – which means that real injustices to either gender get masked by politics.

        This is why you don’t want me to talk about these things. I’m a heretic…

        May 18, 2011
      • I’ve also so seen some REALLY horrid statistics used to support various agendas. Anyone using any form of correlation as causation is trying to sell something, its remotely possible they are doing so unintentionally but a sales job is a sales job and no one tries to sell you something they don’t want you to buy.

        May 18, 2011

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