Women and Hugos Revisited

There is some interesting discussion going on about the Women and the Hugos issue over at the Feminist SF blog, and this has prompted me to dig out some numbers.

In order to do so, I had to define what I meant by a “female” nominee, because some nominations have many names attached to them. I decided that the best thing to do would be to count any nomination with at least 50% women’s names on it. So Weird Tales counts as “female” because it is Ann and Stephen, but METAtropolis does not because Bear is one woman amongst five. With that assumption in mind, what results do we get?

Well 40% of this year’s Hugos were won by “female” nominees. That’s pretty good. On the other hand, only 23% of nominees were “female”.

Before I get into reasons for this I also want to note that the categories with no women nominees were almost all very high profile: Best Novel, and the two Dramatic Presentation categories, plus Artist. So male dominance is much more pronounced when there is more money at stake, and where more people participate in the voting. That’s interesting.

But why the imbalance in nominees? I think it is fairly obvious, and I talked about it at length here. Reading is a gendered behavior. Way too many men simply don’t read books by women unless they are prompted to do so in some way. So once a work gets on the final ballot the chances are that most men will take a look, and judge the works fairly, but when they have to pick nominees from works they have read they pick all men, because they haven’t read anything that is eligible and is written by women.

So the effect is at least in part statistical. Imagine you have an electorate of 1000 voters, split equally between men and women. The women and 100 of the men read works by both men and women, so that’s 600 votes split equally: 300 to each gender. The other 400 men only read books by men, so that’s 400 more votes for male writers. The end result will be 30% of the nominees are female, and 70% male.

In practice things are apparently even worse than that. Other factors obviously come into play, including the possibility that it may be harder for women to get published, or that women choose to write books that don’t appeal to Hugo voters. So I’m not claiming that gendered reading is the entire explanation, just one (potentially major) contributing factor.

But does it matter? Isn’t the fact that 40% of this year’s Hugos were won by women evidence that nothing is wrong? Well, no, because in the long run the Hugos are going to get judged against other awards. Many of those other awards are juried (e.g. the World Fantasy Awards, the Clarke, the PK Dick). Members of a jury are expected to read all of the submitted works, so gendered reading doesn’t come into the equation. Also juries these days are well aware of the opprobrium that will be heaped upon them if they produce all-male short lists. In a world in which juried awards produce, say, 40% women nominees, and the Hugos produce only 25%, the Hugos will look very bad indeed.

I’m not sure what can be done about this. The amendment we crafted for Yonmei was a long way from ideal, though it was much better that her original proposal. If I could have thought of something better I would have suggested it. But there is no easy short term solution to a generation of male voters who have grown up “not seeing” women’s work unless it is thrust in front of their noses.

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19 Responses to Women and Hugos Revisited

  1. Jonathan Strahan says:

    I need to ponder this a lot more, but I can’t help but feel that the proposed Hugo rules amendment and a number of the suggestions which seek to correct problems with the voting procedures in the Hugos are approaching this from the wrong end.

    I’ve looked at the rules (though not closely), and I’ve had the WSFS explained to me (though not in detail). It appears to me that the *system* does not have a gendered or other bias. The *input* into the system is where the flaw lies. For whatever reason, the current voting population for the Hugos is likely to produce a gender-biased ballot.

    That suggests to me what needs to be done is that the voting base needs to be expanded and educated. Voting needs to be made easier and works of merit by ALL people need to be promoted to that audience. This reminds me very much of what Charles Brown was trying to do with Locus: improve the field by promoting works of excellence. It took him 40 years, and he was still working at, so it’s a slow process, but it seems to the answer to this lies there. In effect, there needs to be a new media source promoting these works direct to the voting audience. That way change *should* come. I hope.

  2. Cheryl says:


    You are quite right that it is the inputs that are the problem. However, I’m not sure that expanding the voting base will have the effect you want. If it turns out that the voters are predominantly male, and we could even that up, then it might help, but I don’t think that is the problem. What nags at my mind if that the categories with the most participation are the ones with the fewest female nominees.

    40 years is a good timescale to thing about an education project, but the Hugos may have to put up with an awful lot of accusations of bias in that time.

    Oh, and the existing positive discrimination measures in the Hugos – the eligibility extension rules – are all about correcting problems with inputs.

  3. Jonathan Strahan says:

    To some degree, is promoting voting to women readers a partial solution? I wonder how many people who highlight issues with the Hugo nominating and voting actually participate? I have wondered if there might be a tendency to be willing to help point out the problem, but not a willingness to be part of the solution.

    And I do think this will take a long time. It doesn’t mean that efforts shouldn’t be made to rectify things now, but the real solution is one of education and awareness. Or so it seems to me.

  4. Cheryl says:

    Yeah, it is definitely an issue. Most of the groups that complain loudly about not being represented also tend to have something of a, “there’s no point in voting, my choices will never win, they all hate me” attitude. I keep pounding away at them. Making voting cheaper and/or making supporting membership more worth the money helps. So does making people who can’t attend Worldcon regularly feel part of the WSFS community.

  5. Niall says:

    it may be harder for women to get published, or that women choose to write books that don’t appeal to Hugo voters.

    Indeed. Last year, for example, a mighty 13% of submissions to the Clarke Award were by women, which means that to a good approximation 13% of the science fiction novels published in the UK in 2008 were by women; and the percentages in the previous few years were only slightly higher. The numbers (I’m estimating, based on what I get in review copies) get more balanced when you add in fantasy, but of course many Hugo voters prefer science fiction. And (again, estimating) I think the proportion of science fiction novels published in the US, where of course most Hugo voters are, that are by women is higher (again, sketchy estimate), but I don’t think it’s near 50%.

  6. Cheryl says:


    Useful data, thanks. Of course as we know from Tim Holman the biggest selling SF&F sub-genres are urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Those books are much less likely to be read by men than, say, a Nancy Kress novel, or an Elizabeth Bear, but they never feature in the Hugos. I don’t think that’s due to lack of women voting. I suspect it is more the case that the women who do vote in the Hugos don’t read those books, and conversely that the women who do read them don’t vote in the Hugos.

  7. Ray Radlein says:

    Could some of this be cyclical, though, based on specific authors? I mean, it’s not too hard to remember a time when it seemed like Connie Willis and Lois McMaster Bujold were winning the Best Novel Hugo every year; but Bujold hasn’t written an SF novel in years now (and, for better or worse, Fantasy usually does have an uphill climb come Hugo time).

    And as for the BDP Hugos, I’m not sure it makes sense to compare them to the written awards, for a huge number of reasons, such as the frequent difficulty of identifying authorship or the fact that they so frequently come from effectively outside the SF community all together.

  8. Ray Radlein says:

    Oh, and a complete aside: I was just reading your 2006 cricket explanation for baseball fans (and was pleasantly surprised about how much I already knew), when I came across this sentence:

    Rather like with a knuckleball, the pitcher imparts ferocious spin on the ball as it leaves his hand.

    That is, I’m afraid, exactly wrong: The secret to a knuckleball is that it comes out of the pitcher’s hand with almost no spin at all (ideally, it should be spinning at about 1/2 to 1/4 of a single rotation on its trip to the plate).

    The reason for this is obvious: A spinning object is much more stable in flight (see: rifling, fletching, frisbees, etc). With a knuckleball, as it proceeds towards the plate, the fluid dynamics of the air in front of the ball sort of build up until suddenly its motion becomes severely non-Newtonian, jerking sharply in an unpredictable direction shortly before it reaches the batter.

    The technical name for kunckleballs that spin significantly before they reach the batter is “home runs.”

  9. Craig Miller says:

    I question your implied statistic: 80% of men won’t read works by female authors. Where do you draw that from?

    Also, many Hugo voters cast votes without familiarity with all nominees in a given category. If they wouldn’t read the female author’s work before, I would think it likely that many would continue that policy. Yet 40% of the winners are female (despite only holding only 23% of the nominations). That doesn’t follow.


  10. Cheryl says:


    Having women winning Hugos dependent on one or two star performers doesn’t sound good to me. I’d much prefer a regular turnover of new and interesting women writers.

    As for the baseball, many thanks. I shall talk to Kevin and re-write.

  11. Cheryl says:


    The 80% was just an illustration of how the statistics might work, I’m not claiming it as fact. My initial instinct was to go for something lower, but then I noticed that even a fairly extreme example didn’t fully explain this year’s numbers.

    As for your other comment, I don’t think you read my post very thoroughly. The whole point about gendered reading is that it is mostly subconscious. Sure men will turn their noses up at romance, but a lot of the time they just don’t notice what they are doing. So given a short list with two women on it, most male Hugo voters will conscientiously read those books, but in a book shop looking for something new to read a lot of them will plump unerringly for a male author. There are plenty of studies showing this sort of thing.

  12. Ray Radlein says:

    Oh, I agree about the star performers, but that’s sort of my point, a little: The Best Novel nominations and winners tend to have such a significant “Flavor of the Decade” feel to them, and such a small sample size, that it is very easy for one or two hot authors to distort a statistical analysis of any particular period in Hugo history.

    I don’t doubt that there is an issue here, and I agree with your analysis of the likely reasons — I’ve certainly seen them in effect myself — but I’m not sure that the evidence from which you draw your conclusions is necessarily sufficient to the task.

  13. Cheryl says:


    I’d love to have better data.

  14. ipa says:

    Im Finnish large quantitative reading studies it has been shown as a clear fact that women read books written by all genders and men rarely books written by women. I doubt if the results have been different in any parts of the world.

    Also (mostly male) critics tended to review books of men in large size in newspapers, and review women’s books as a group under a titles like “Female suspence quite lame this year”. This, however, has totally changed during the last years -after if was revealed and analyzed in some studies.

    There must be also statistics about the rise of the women in Finnish sf competitions. Tero?

  15. Do you suppose some of the gendered reading pattern has to do with cover design? Have you ever noticed a pattern in how sf books by women are marketed, compared to books by men? Just looking at the books in your sidebar, Chasing the Dragon clearly has a female protagonist and the cover emphasizes that, while The Cardinal’s Blades has a cover worthy of a D&D book and house of suns has a space ship on the cover…

    that’s a way small sample size, but I think it might make an interesting panel or study to do sometime. A look at The Locus index of 2009 covers backs me up there – the fantasy by women alone, the female figures and faces are generally much more prominent on the covers. Greg van Eekhout’s, Norse Code is the only book by a man that stands out to me the same way.

  16. Cheryl says:


    There’s no question that books are marketed in a gendered way. This probably does exacerbate the problem. But the basic issue is still that women are prepared to read most books by men while men instinctively avoid books by women. I don’t think changing the covers would completely fix that.

  17. Tom S. says:

    I think a better solution is to bring more awareness to hugo worth stories written by women. I am lucky to ready 10 books a year due to my reading for work and other things. If I read only a few books a year, I need to hear other people’s opinions to help me with my nomination ballot.

  18. James B says:

    I was about to say what Tom has said.

    Lois Mcmaster Bujold has to be one of my favourite writers, and I love what Karen Traviss has done with the star wars franchise
    (that Meja stuff). Perhaps a list about women writers, similar to what Paul Cornell has written about comics, would be good.

    Helpful even.

  19. Tero says:

    Ipa: I did some digging and came up with interesting results.

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