Women and Hugos – Mea Culpa

Nicola Griffith is continuing to mine data about women and literary awards, now with the help of a bunch of eager volunteers. She has a new post up on Charlie Stross’s blog, and it includes the following fascinating chart made by someone called Eric.

Women and Hugos chart

The chart is using female membership of SFWA as a proxy for the number of women writing SF&F. It is not perfect but I’m happy with the assumption.

What we can see here is that from the foundation of SFWA through to around 1995 the proportion of women getting Hugo nominations tracked fairly well with the proportion of women actually writing. From around 1995 to 2006 there is a catastrophic drop-off in the number of award nominations, after which things pick up again.

One interesting thing to me in all this is that 1995 to 2006 is the period in which I was publishing Emerald City. So, by the standards of proof used by tabloid newspapers, clearly the decline in the number of female Hugo finalists is all my fault.

Or maybe not. Correlation does not imply causality and all that.

Rather more interesting is there seems to be a ceiling beyond which women are not allowed to go. If we get over 30% of the finalist slots there’s a backlash. The effects of Puppygate are not shown on the chart, but I’m sure you can all envisage what they will be.

The good news is that our ceiling appears to be considerably higher than the 17% reported by the Geena Davis Institute in its famous study of women in movies. Even so, a ceiling is a worrying thing, and I’m now eager to dig further into the results for the 1995 to 2006 period to see if there are any obvious drivers (other than me) for the collapse. I’m asking myself questions such as, Is the same pattern seen in the Nebulas? and, Is there a corresponding rise in women in the fantasy novel category of the Locus Awards?

Not that I have time to do any digging right now. Is someone else does it, I shall be very grateful.

10 thoughts on “Women and Hugos – Mea Culpa

  1. Catastrophic drop-offs happened in lots of genres, I suspect. I haven’t pulled the data together yet properly but a glance at Edgar info from the 20th C shows a similar–though I wouldn’t swear to the exact timing–effect. (I haven’t even begun to ask questions such as: “Who/how many joined crime fiction organisations?”)

    I have theories (of course!) but no data to back up those theories. On first glance I think I see a correlation with both corporate consolidation (publishers and bookstores) and then economic recession. Causative? I don’t know. (And which the chicken, which the egg?)

    If I were a billionaire I’d be building a foundation and hiring data diggers to look into all of this. Meanwhile, we have a wee Google Group and lots of blog posts. Hey, it’s a start…

  2. My suspicion on that fall-off is that not only was there an obvious publishing consolidation going on, but that there was a publishing explosion going on at the same time.

    Explosion? Yep — desktop publishing got big and bigger during that era and a lot of small presses were started by disaffected writers. The small presses had a hard time fighting to be seen, though, and professionals were (I speak from experience) warned away from from self-pubbing. SFWA wasn’t accepting self-pub credits — and then the epub revolution hit, with a surge of proprotions hidden to the wider universe since so many of the early e-presses were selling to self-selected audiences largely not affiliated with SFWA and somewhat distant from the paperbook “regular SF readers” who also didn’t have a good way to nominate the weird formats.

    My experience runs through our own BPLAN Virtuals (“disktop publishing” in the late 80s to early 90s) and also through the period when Melissa Michaels with her Embiid ebooks and others were starting a sort of ebook underground. We (Lee & Miller) had several years in the early 2000s where our ebook sales exceeded our paperbook sales — and so did a number of female writers, I’m sure — but largely out of sight of the SF mainstream.

    1. So you are suggesting that while the proportion of women write SF continued to increase, most of those were publishing in formats that didn’t get nominated?

      1. I have a similar theory, but not for commercial self publishing. If anything self-publishing seems to be more male than traditional publishing, at least based on the author names I see as a fan, and the timing is all wrong as well – you’d expect to see a huge growth in self-publishing when the Kindle was released in 2007, but there’s nothing like that in the data.

        On the other hand, look at fanfiction. Female-dominated, never considered for awards, and to at least some extent it eats into the amount of fiction the writers publish in more “respectable” categories. And it makes more sense with the timing too. Obviously not everyone posting on fanfiction.net would otherwise be working on a traditional novel or submitting stories to Asimov’s, but it’s got to have an effect at the margins.

  3. This is really interesting.

    Something I’m wondering about is if the recent increase in female membership in the SFWA has been in subgenres that rarely glean hugo awards (YA fantasy, for instance, or UF, or paranormal). Also, I’m wondering if there’s been a shift in the subgenres of SFF longer-standing women SFWA members are writing in.

    If women are increasingly switching from SF and classic styles of fantasy to subgenres that are ignored come Hugo time, that could be part of the explanation for the drop off.

    Of course, even if this turns out to be a factor, the next question should be why. My anecdotal sense is that there have been relatively few new women emerging in epic fantasy and hard SF in recent years (and all the debut blockbusters I know of in these genres seem to be male). It even seems that many of my favorite female epic fantasy writers who were big in the 90s and early 2000s are now languishing in obscurity (no one talks about them anymore), or they’re now writing YA or UF.

    If my completely unscientific hunch here is true, I’d love to know why.

  4. Eric’s, I think your idea that women are writing in subgenres that are largely overlooked by the fandom caring enough to actually pay to cast a vote is a valid one.

    I’m very fond of the urban fantasy subgenre and most of the writers whose writing I read are female. Very few of there works, if any, reach the ballot — more’s the pity as there’s excellent work being done by a lot of those writers.

    Now I’m off to read Seanan McGuire’s new Indexing novel.

  5. That graph is in its own way quite damning. But whilst everyone has been talking about the difference between the percentage of women writers in the business and the percentage of women writers nominated for the Hugos, there is something else going on in that graph.
    There seems to be some sort cycle c. 15 year cycle in the Hugo award nominations. If we accept this cycle is normal, then things start to go wrong in about 2000 (not 1995 as might be suggested by your post). Finding out what went wrong is another matter.
    However the 15-year cycle also bothers me. It’s the kind of time length that I would expect reactions to calls to stop discrimination, the discriminations stopping, then everyone thinking the problem is solved and the discrimination starting to be effective again. Which, if true, means that some form of discrimination has been going on all the time.

  6. Dropping by to note that the data items on the chart are “members of SFWA” and “Hugo finalists”. People might want to think about that before coming up with theories involving self-publication and ebooks.

    Also people might want to read Nicola’s comment in which she suggests that the phenomenon occurs across all genres, not just SF&F.

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