Gender Imbalance – Why It Happens

Articles about gender imbalance in publishing are ten-a-penny these days. Everyone has an opinion, and I’ve been starting to ignore them unless they have something new and interesting to say. Last night I found one such article: this one.

The article begins by recapping the usual story about the VIDA survey, but it very quickly gets onto asking why men dominate publication stats, and what can be done about it. The usual excuse trotted out for an imbalance is, “we can’t publish what we don’t get,” accompanied by stats showing that men dominate submissions. But why don’t publishers get submissions from women? Rob Spillman, founder and editor of the literary magazine Tin House, decided to dig deeper.

The first thing to note is that Tin House does solicit some contributions. It isn’t clear what the balance of those solicitations is, but Spillman notes that, when he does solicit material, men are twice as likely to send him something.

Beyond that, he also looked at how male and female writers responded to rejection of unsolicited submissions. As of when he was interviewed, 100% of the men that Spillman had sent a rejection letter to had tried again at least once. Only 20% of the rejected women had done so.

What is the explanation for this? Well I’m sure that some people will assume that this proves that women are lazy, stupid and incompetent. If they can’t manage to submit to magazines, how can they expect to get published in them?

Spillman and his team, however, decided to try to encourage more women to contribute. And while they were still happy to accept material from male writers, they stopped actively soliciting them. After all, they didn’t need to. The men would submit anyway. The result was a much more even gender split (42 men and 56 women in 2012).

But wait, surely this is positive discrimination! It is Politically Correct, and hugely unfair to men! Material from lazy incompetents is being encouraged! Surely quality will suffer! (I’m resisting going into all caps here, but only just.)

Here too, Spillman was prepared. His magazine is well thought of in the literary community and regularly wins awards. The 2012 experiment with women writers caused very little difference in the number of nominations for Best American Short Stories, O. Henry awards, and the Pushcart Prize that the magazine received.

So is there another reason why women are so reluctant to submit? Spillman’s explanation is that they are just shy. “You’ve got to draw them into the conversation,” he said. And that is probably true. In most cultures girls are trained from an early age to keep quiet and let men talk. But I’d like to suggest some additional theories.

Willingness to put yourself forward is all a matter of confidence. You have to be confident in your own ability, and you have to be confident that you will be treated fairly.

As far as self-confidence goes, aggression directed towards women who are publicly visible, and the lack of reviews for women writers, clearly aren’t going to help. Women writers expect that, if they are published, they will be held to a far higher standard than their male counterparts, and that will naturally make them reluctant to submit unless they think their work is of exceptional quality.

Expectation of fairness may also be an issue. The more experience you have of discrimination, the more likely you are to expect it in future, and the more likely it is that you will ascribe any setback to discrimination rather than to fair judgement of your work. If you are already used to people telling you that you are no good because you are a woman, or because you are black, or because you are queer, then when you get rejected from a venue you may well assume that discrimination was the reason, and that will lead you to not bothering to submit there again.

I can, of course, see reasons why a major publishing house might be unable to implement the sort of strategies used by Spillman at Tin House. There will be penny-pinching middle managers who are liable to get in the way if additional effort and expense is involved. In these days of miniscule PR budgets, you might prefer to sign someone who is self-confident and pushy over someone who is a better writer but unlikely to promote herself well. You might even run into trouble with your corporate ethics people if you seem to be engaging in “positive discrimination”. Nevertheless, I do think that actively seeking out good quality submissions is likely to result in better quality product.

Whether it will result in a more profitable product is, of course, another matter. If some readers are reluctant to buy books by authors who are female, people of color, queer and so on, you can see why a large, profit-driven organization might be reluctant to sign such authors, no matter how keen editors are on their books.

5 thoughts on “Gender Imbalance – Why It Happens

  1. I think you’re on the right track about why women are less likely to submit, in terms of our social conditioning – I was talking to a friend the other day about the very low level of female contributors to Wikipedia (one study found 16% of editors are female, but only 9% of edits are done by women: ) and we had similar reasoning about girls being socially expected to not put themselves forwards and the vitriolic reactions to many of those who do. This can be particularly bad on the internet, which I think helps explain the lack of gender balance on Wikipedia.

    It’ll be interesting to see whether the strategies you’re talking about are used by major publishers – I also wonder whether somewhere like Wikipedia might use it!

    1. Wikipedia is a rather different case. There are no gatekeepers as such. Anyone can join and start to write, and nothing you write has to be commercial. On the other hand, once you have material there, it can then quickly victim to edit wars. It’s as if the same people who routinely give one-star reviews on Amazon to books because they are by women also have the right to remove those books from bookstore shelves. That’s not an easy problem to fix.

      And no, I don’t think many major publishers will employ such strategies. They are much too solidly focused on producing “what the customers want” and on cost reduction.

  2. Expectation of fairness may also be an issue. […] If you are already used to people telling you that you are no good because you are a woman, or because you are black, or because you are queer, then when you get rejected from a venue you may well assume that discrimination was the reason, and that will lead you to not bothering to submit there again.

    It’s not even necessary for a discriminatory reason to have been given– if your experience is that once a publisher has rejected you, it’s not going to change its mind, then you’re not going to bother, regardless of what their stated reason was.

  3. I can confirm Spillman’s observations on a much smaller scale. When I solicit for Locus, I have found that I need to ask 2x as many women to get an even gender split. For an average batch of invites I’ll ask 2 men and 4 women and wind up with a 50/50 split.

    I agree with many of the reasons listed above, and I’ll add another speculation: if a woman is successful enough to get a high profile, they are probably kept very busy, especially by people who remember: “We need a woman in this!” I’ve had to turn down requests myself simply because I sometimes don’t have enough time to be the token female on All The Science Panels.

  4. It’s also interesting to notice how this differs from country to country. For example here in Finland most of the successful speculative fiction writers are women – and sometimes it seems we need token males for panel discussions.

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