Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Gender Bias in SF/F Round Table: Part One

I like top ten lists, they generate a lot of traffic, are fun to write, and don't take a lot of time. So I do one once a quarter or so and they've been very successful, but when I posted my latest Fall Edition, I got a eye opening tweet from a fellow reviewer.

"All men. Had you noticed that?"

In the spirit of honesty and full disclosure, I'll admit that I hadn't. And my first reaction was to be angry that I'd been called on the carpet and to dismiss it out of hand. But once the initial bout of defensiveness wore off ( I'm proud to say it didn't take more than my drive to work) I knew this was something that I needed to talk through. I'm not a person who considers myself a sexist or a some one who marginalize anyone based on any reason of color, gender, or any such identifier. So I reached out to Stina, whose opinion on these matters I have come to greatly respect, and we exchanged some emails that left me feeling slightly embarrassed, a great deal more educated and determined that this topic bears discussion on a public forum.

So along with Stina Leicht who helped get this all started, I asked Zach Jernigan and Mazarkis Williams if they’d be interested in talking with me about this in a round table format similar to the excellent Violence in SF/F discussion a few months back.  I’m taking a bit more of an active part in this discussion this time around. (Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

Matt : I'll start this out with saying this that despite being a genre reader for the vast duration of my life, I'd always assumed that SFF was a male dominated genre and that the reason I read far fewer female authors was due to the disparity in the number of them on the shelves. Stina disabused me of that notion right off, and I'll leave those points for her to share.

But before we crunch numbers I'd like to ask the group your thoughts on why this inaccurate picture of genre is so prevalent and what your experiences have been as professionals in the industry as it pertains to this blind spot in the collective thought process of the genre community.

Mazarkis Williams:

Wow. There are so many different things that come into my mind. The first is this: imagine a doctor. Now imagine a police enforcement officer. Imagine a professor. Imagine a CEO. Imagine a U.S. president.

How many times did you conjure up a woman versus how many times did you conjure up a man? I think that most of us, when asked to imagine up a random individual, imagine a man. Some of that is linguistic – our longstanding habit of using “he” when the gender is unknown. Some of it is cultural and I hope to get back to that in later questions.

I have written before that most people, not knowing the gender of Mazarkis Williams, have defaulted to male. A minority defaulted to female, and others simply asked. The person who runs the web site for Jo Fletcher Books had to come up with an image for the identity, and chose to show the outline of a man taking off his glasses in a professorial way. It is interesting to me that he chose to create the outline of a man rather than a more ambiguous one. But we like to know – as a society we like to know, so that we can categorize. There is the normal, and then the less normal and the even less normal and so on.

You may have heard of the recent uproar on Wikipedia. Women were removed from the “American Novelists” category and put into their own category, “American Women Novelists.” While this was the work of just one editor who seemed attached to subcategories, it wasn’t immediately fixed. Instead, to the amazement of many, there was a debate.

(There is more I would say about this, but it has nothing to do with our topic.)

So for some, a male writer is “the norm,” making the extension to women, well, an extension. It’s “different,” which seems to imply “fewer.” This reaction is not dependent on facts and figures about how many women write; it’s based on cultural preconceptions.

But I sense that’s not you, Matt. I have no explanation for why you, personally, picked ten books by men, or what your average might have been over the course of the last five years. I also have questions as to which books were promoted to you – which books you got for free from publishers or read about on others’ blogs. That might have been weighted male, influencing your reading habits. Without more information I could not say.

Stina Leicht: Personally, I think Maz nailed it in one. The biggest reason is that we use the word 'he' as gender neutral--which it absolutely isn't. Culturally, Americans (and I can only speak for Americans because I'm American) are acutely uncomfortable with the concept of gender neutral. We need to know right away. Watch anyone in a room with a baby, and the first question asked about the child is its gender. Ask Maz. I bet it comes up a lot, and when the gender isn't specified there is "outraged feedback!" That said, women, due to being the invisible majority in the US (52% of the population,) are often not included sub-textually unless specified otherwise. This is how we get "lady writers." (I fucking hate that expression. Actually, I hate the term 'lady' but that is another discussion.)

The other part of the problem has to do with the assumptions made when one sees a female name on the cover. Wait. Hang on. Let's start with the freaking cover.

Author Maureen Johnson drew attention to this issue via her Coverflip challenge.

Take a moment. Read. Don't worry. I'll wait.


Okay. Done? So, the likelihood of a feminized cover on a book with a female author is practically a guarantee. The content doesn't matter. Let's talk about my own book cover for example. The authors whose work I was reading for flavor (Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan) are Irish Crime novelists. Have a look at their covers. Now, look at mine. If you've read my books you know what awaits inside those soft, dreamy covers, and it ain't friendly, cuddly, or soft. Understand, the first rendition of my cover looked like a kitchen doily. This, on a book containing prison rape, torture, heroin abuse, and well, approximately 500,000 instances of the word 'fuck.' Mind you, I love the artwork. I own copies, and they hang on my walls at home, but the images are girlier than the Irish Crime boys' covers. I'll rest my case on this point here.

In addition, people make assumptions--and men aren't the only ones who do this, women do it too--that any book with a female name on the cover instantly means Romance or Erotica or children's literature. That's being generous. Usually, the thought is "this book is of lesser quality/not as intelligent." It's even worse when your work gets a Urban Fantasy label and you have a female name on the cover. I've actually gotten a review that stated they hated my books because "it's insulting to use The Troubles as a setting for shallow plots, snarky dialog, and vampires." There are no vampires in my books, and while the dialog is snappy, I don't think anyone who has actually read the books would call them shallow. There was even a reviewer who flat out refused to read my books for the same reasons. It wasn't until I harangued him on Twitter that he changed his mind. It took effort on my part too. He's a convert, thank goodness, but I get the impression he sees me as an exception, not the rule. Exceptionism is a big problem too, but again, that's another argument.

None of this is a conscious thing--well a majority, anyway. It isn't a grand conspiracy. It's an engrained prejudice, and it's long past time to do something about it.

Zachary Jernigan: Oh, so many thinkings are happening in my brainplace!

The first thing I'll say is this: I sympathize, Matt. If one were to look at the list of books I've read -- hell, it's on Goodreads for all to see -- one would find it disproportionately male. Despite some of my favorite authors having (or having had) vaginas, my reading, which is largely dominated by science fiction and fantasy works, skews very heavily toward the penises. And this reading history belongs to a guy who considers himself pretty progressive, a fairly vocal advocate of feminism who has no problem using the word feminism.

At the same time, am I surprised? No. Not even slightly, and that makes me sad. I just bought 7 books the other day; one was written by a woman. The last two -- three? -- books I read were by men.

Why is this? Am I just talking about women and women's issues and Let's get more women up in here! when in reality I'm not all that concerned about actually being an advocate through action? Am I not interested in educating myself? Or, more horrifying still, am I just not interested in a woman's voice?

If I think it out, I know this isn't true. I can answer no to all the questions above.

--again, when I'm thinking about it.

But how much do I do without an ounce of thought? Ooh, that book looks good. Ooh, I want to read about that kind of stuff.

It's safe to say I do a lot of stuff nearly on automatic, hardly conscious of the ways in which I'm giving in to the status quo in my own brain and among the literary culture at large. Stina points to an article in which covers are flipped, and it makes a damn good point:

This gendering crap is occurring all the time, and in ways we tend to downplay. For years I took so much pride in not being swayed by commercials and other ads, but I ignored the fact that I bought so many books simply because the cover drew me in -- and why did it draw me in? Well, hell, because I did so many of the formative things males did. I read comic books. I played with wooden swords. I watched wrestling. I was encouraged to do these things, and despite (technically) being an adult these preferences have carried over.

I am programmed, and I continue to operate according to my programming.

And it still tells me that science fiction and fantasy is a man's game, even when it's less and less true. It tells me in so many insidious but right out in the open ways that there is gender-appropriate reading to be done, and boy oh boy (girl oh girl) do I listen. I don't like this fact, at all, but rarely do I -- despite all my words of apparent passion to the contrary -- really let my dissatisfaction reach the part of my brain that tells me to read books.

So, to return: I'm sympathetic to you, Matt, because I share the same task you do -- to become a reader who actively fights his programming.

Matt: It’s astounding how deep the gender blind spot is ingrained and how much conscious effort it takes to overcome in it, despite our own self-conceptions of being beyond such far reaching and systematic biases.

Mazarkis asks a good question about marketing and reviewers. I’d like to be able to point the finger at publishers, but I can’t. My reading choices are my own. The review copies I receive, still not a large amount, are a direct result of my inquiries for specific titles. With that said, I have noticed a trend to read work by authors I have read in the past. Before I started reviewing and had more information on upcoming releases and critical buzz my purchases were determined largely by bookstore browsing and Amazon recommendations. That leaves me wondering if Amazon’s recommendation system includes the customer’s gender in its algorithm, but I imagine my purchase history could account for that all by itself. I’m not really interested in attributing my habits to any other outside source.

But I would have to agree that the marketing efforts of the publisher probably reflects and in doing so reinforces this bias. Stina’s covers are an excellent example of this. The cover art chosen seems tied to the gender of the writer first and whatever audience segment the publisher thinks the work should be marketed toward second. As a reader of Stina’s fiction, I can’t help but wonder if the people responsible for the covers even bothered to read the books. Because there is a distinct disconnect between the wrapping on those particular gifts and their contents. Cover art impacts me less these days, but I can’t say they have no impact at all. Men are widely considered to be visual creatures and the covers of many female authors’ books don’t offer much in the way of impetus to pick them up and read the back copy. Word of mouth is much more likely to lead me to those novels, but when I’m at a loss for what to read next, cover art definitely has an impact. Often, more than it should.

Even with all of that, I am responsible for my own choices, well informed and ignorant, conscious or unconscious. I’m a savvier consumer these days when it comes to making an effort to read more than just old white dudes, but as this experience points out all too clearly, I could do better. That’s what this discussion is about for me; exposing the blind spot and the reasons for it, and hoping that readers who are made aware will be willing to put in the work to reprogram their habits to better reflect their perceptions of themselves.

Which brings me to Zach’s comments which I believe in many ways are the most important here. While it is important to get to the bottom of why this culture of assumptions and blind spots exists in the first place, and to see how marketing, cultural bias, and gender assumptions impact all of us on a deep level, the most important thing is to determine what we as voices in the community can do to lessen it’s pervasive impact.

And the only way to do that is to acknowledge the programming we’ve been receiving since childhood, and make a concerted effort to not make our reading decisions on auto-pilot.

It’s the tendency to be simply drift along, content to follow programming that is embedded that makes the problem such a hard one to address in a meaningful way on a larger scale. To use this conversation as an example, I reacted to my choices being called a mistake with a reflexive defensiveness, even when it is delivered nicely by someone I respect and would consider a friend. I squashed that reaction, but that’s not the instinct. The thing I took from my initial conversation with Stina about all of this was that good intentions don’t matter. Only our actions and the impressions that they leave, independent of our best intentions have any impact.

With that said, do you think the disconnect between intentions and these programmed behaviors is part of the reason why we have so much antagonism when these long standing blind spots are challenged? What in your opinion is the best approach to challenging these misconceptions and the sexist behaviors these cultural behaviors tend to breed?

More discussion coming soon. 


  1. What a timely and thoughtful round table discussion! Really enjoying this one, and looking forward to the next installment!

  2. A great discussion! It's incredible how deeply ingrained gender is in our society. I try to teach my daughters to see beyond pink and blue, but they still identify certain things as girl or boy.

    As a female (and POC) reader and in my "old age" I'm more aware now of the biases. I know that most often they are unintentional, but it is important that people become more aware and address it as you have here. I don't want to see tokenism as a result, though. Fortunately, while there is still a long way to go regarding diversity in all areas, change is happening.

    If you haven't already done so, check out Worlds Without End 's Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. It' s a great opportunity to see just how many female authors are and always have been huge contributors to the genre.

  3. Check out SF Mistressworks, which has been regularly posting reviews of sf by women writers for over two years - see http://sfmistressworks.wordpress.com/. Also relevant is Daughters of Prometheus, which has been running for about 18 months but is not so regular or frequent - http://daughtersofprometheus.wordpress.com/ Both blogs were set up to address the gender imbalance in reviewing and criticism of sf by women writers and to demonstrate that the male domination of science fiction is a myth.

    1. Thanks for bringing those links to our attention. Will promote them on my blog next Monday for sure.

  4. Excellent discussion, and thanks for putting it out there! For a while now, the gender balance in my reading pile is something I've tried to maintain, but it's exactly the kind of thing that can easily slip my notice, become secondary to keeping up with new releases... any number of things can affect what I happen to pick out of the pile to read next, including my inclination at the time. Whether or not the author is male or female never seems to me to be important in that moment of choosing, but maybe it needs to be...

    Can't wait to read Part 2 of this!

  5. This is great, Matt. Thanks for doing it and being so honest. I'm still fighting through it myself every day.

  6. This was awesome! I find it so interesting to see the reading patterns of my fellow readers. I try to read all over the board and because I like so many different types of fantasy I thankfully read quite literally all over the board gender wise. *shit* fell out of my chair backwards...

    I love if that you put yourself out there as an example and hopefully you'll try some new titles because of it! I could always recommend some! LOL

  7. Discussions like this make me very happy to be published by a smaller house (Angry Robot) that doesn't categorise its writers by gender. When looking for a design concept for my debut novel, my editor turned to a book by a male writer (Douglas Hulick) that showed the (fully clothed!) sword-wielding protagonist on the cover. Funnily enough, the finished book seems to have sold well to both sexes :)