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.)