The Gender Balance Question

Over the past few weeks I have seen a lot of posts in the blogosphere about gender balance in the SF&F community and about what people of different genders read. I was asked to partake in a discussion about anthologies, and politely declined because I wanted to talk about wider issues. Here I am doing so.

I’d like to start in the Forbidden Planet store in London. I was there a few days ago, and I noticed that they now have a whole section for “paranormal romance”. And when I say “section” I don’t mean just one shelf, I mean two entire bookcases, each about 6 ft tall by 3 ft wide and packed with paperback volumes, not all of which are by Laurell K Hamilton. I had a good look at the spines, and I could not see a single male author in that section. If there were any, then they were people using their initials instead of a first name, or they had adopted a female pen name. In other words, they would be doing exactly what CJ Cherryh and Andre Norton have done in science fiction – pretending to be a writer of the other gender in order to overcome people’s gendered reading preferences.

But do I see a rash of blog posts from anguished fanboys complaining about gender imbalance in paranormal romance? Do I hear people complaining that Paula Guran is an evil sexist editor because Juno buys far more books from women than from men? If you are thinking “of course not, how silly” then please hold that thought, I will come back to it later.

For now, however, we need to talk about gendered behavior. For several decades it has been a central tenet of many stands of feminism that the human infant is a blank slate onto which gendered behavior is written during childhood. Dress a child in blue, and raise it as a boy, then it will learn to behave as a boy, and vice versa. Liberal parents sometimes try hard to give their children a gender-neutral upbringing so as not to bias them in any way. And yet most boys grow up to be men, and most girls grow up to be women.

There are various reasons for this. One is that, absent strict parental discipline, peer pressure at school has as much, if not more, influence on how kids develop than the home environment. And the sort of parent who wants to give kids a gender-neutral upbringing is not the sort of parent who is likely to enforce strict discipline. But also, somewhere along the way, biology appears to take a hand. That much is obvious from the exceptions.

As I said in my review of the Riki Wilchins book, if social pressures are really that strong, how come transgendered people manage to resist them? Isn’t it much more likely that the biological causes of gender identity are very strong, and are able to resist the social pressure that transgender people come under to conform? And then there are intersex people to think about. They have gender identities too, sometimes quite strong ones. There are some very sad cases where psychiatrists have tried to “train” an intersex child to grow up in one gender, only to have the child resist and adopt the other gender as an adult (or in some cases commit suicide under the pressure).

Ideas about biological causes of gender are unpopular with many feminists, and it is easy to see why. For centuries the idea that women are the “weaker sex” has been used to deny them access to power, position and wealth. It is clearly true that, on average, women are physically weaker than men. I did say only “on average.” Venus or Serena Williams would wipe the floor with most men on a tennis court. But put one of them up against Federer or Nadal and she’d be thoroughly outplayed. Men tend to make much of such differences and argue, quite illogically, that because the average man is stronger than the average woman then all (“real”) men must be stronger than all women. Feminists don’t want to accept this idea, or the idea that physical weakness is somehow evidence of mental and spiritual weakness, and quite right too.

On the other hand, it doesn’t help to deny that transgendered people exist. Rather too often you see feminists espousing the position that female-to-male transsexuals are “really” still women, they are just a little bit butch; whereas male-to-female transsexuals are either pathetic dupes of evil male psychiatrists, or else are evil cross-dressing men disguising themselves as women in order to enter women’s spaces and rape us, and either way are “really” men.

If you noticed that those attitudes are very different depending on which way the gender change goes, hold that thought. You might also note that both sexologists and tabloid journalists tend to obsess over MtF transsexuals and ignore FtMs (unless they do something dramatic like get pregnant).

So people have gender identities, and those are in part biologically determined. They bring with them gendered behavior. Boys like doing macho things, girls like doing girly things. But because gender is a very complex system, these attitudes can vary a lot from person to person, and they are modified by upbringing and environment.

Is reading a gendered behavior? Plenty of evidence seems to suggest that it is. Admittedly that evidence does not come in the form of a proper scientific study (or at least not one that I could find), but there is circumstantial evidence aplenty. Here, for example, is a study done for The Guardian on the comparative reading habits of men and women. Not only did they find that men and women prefer different types of books, but they also discovered an imbalance in the authors that their study groups liked.

Six male authors made it into the women’s top 20. Only one woman has made it on to the men’s: Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird). Is it churlish of us to suspect that some men did not realise that Harper was a woman?

And here is a gentleman from Waterstones trying to explain why male authors dominate their “top 100” books list:

Women read more than men – the core customer is a woman aged between 35 and 55 – but what they read is right across the board: chick lit, crime fiction, biographies, heavyweight novels, and they don’t care about the gender of the author.

Subconsciously, I think men stick to male writers. They think that what women write doesn’t appeal to them.

I don’t have corresponding data for the USA, but here is a Harris poll that supports the idea that men and women read different types of books.

Finally, to take things to a ridiculous extreme, Glenda Larke has found a man who refuses to read a book with cats in it. Because, you know, you can get girl cooties from a cat.

Time to re-cap. What have we got here?

  • Lots of people complain about women not being able to break in to areas of writing that are male-dominated, but hardly anyone complains about men not being able to break into areas of writing that are female-dominated.
  • People get all bent out of shape by the idea of male-to-female transsexuals, but are much more relaxed about the female-to-male of the species.
  • Women, although they prefer certain types of books, are happy to read books by authors of either gender, whereas men are often reluctant to read books that are written by women, or even look like they might by written for women.

What does all of this have in common? It is the idea that women should naturally aspire to be more like men, but that no man in his right mind would want to be like a woman.

And that, ladies, gentlemen and all points in between, is where your gender imbalance mainly comes from. There will be a certain amount of natural imbalance, because men and women do like different types of story. But mainly the problem is that men, consciously or not, just don’t want to read “girly stuff”.

Because, you know, cooties…

So people get upset and, as Kelley Eskridge noted recently:

There have been about a million online discussions (many of them unpleasant and unproductive) about this issue.

I don’t think that yelling at editors and publishers and award juries will do much good. To me it smacks too much of thinking of women as victims. Now sure there are areas in which women are victimized – rape is an obvious example that springs immediately to mind. However, we do now have a fair degree of civil rights; we just have difficulty getting men to take them seriously. Playing the victim will get you plenty of sympathy, but it won’t get you much in the way of respect. Indeed, it will reinforce the idea that you are weak and in need of protection. And that in turn reinforces the idea that women are second-class citizens, which is where all of the problems stem from.

Besides, there’s nothing wrong with someone wanting to produce a male-oriented anthology, magazine or even line of books. After all, we have Aqueduct and Juno, don’t we? I own at least one anthology that contains only women writers (and was conceived that way). Also there are types of male-oriented-book that I am less interested in reading – generally the ones that are aimed at adolescent boys with power fantasies and a misogynist streak as wide as the English Channel, and yes science fiction and fantasy does still have some books like that. I’d like such books clearly identified so that I can avoid them.

Equally, like Anne Harris, I also have types of female-oriented-book that I prefer not to read.

…those romances where the relationship between the woman and the man doesn’t entirely get off the ground until the hero humiliates the heroine, and breaks her down, and forces her to realize that by being her own person she’s unwittingly become a cold and unnatural creature, and only by submitting to the power of his love can she be redeemed.

I really dislike books like that, but they apparently sell well to women so lots of people must like them. Gendered preferences are rarely cut and dried. If someone produces an anthology that appeals mainly to one gender then it may work, or it may fail, depending on the degree of bias and the quality of the book. As Jeff VanderMeer noted in the SF Signal discussion, the biggest mistake you can make is to produce a gender-biased book and try to pretend that it is actually balanced. If you are honest about your intentions then most people won’t complain.

“Best of” anthologies and awards, well that’s a little different, because the editors and judges are claiming that they are selecting “the best”. They will of course claim that they are making an “artistic decision”. But that decision will be informed by their own personal preferences, and those preferences may include inbuilt biases. Then again, if more men are getting published you might expect more men to be good, though against that you can argue that if a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get published then the women writers who do exist must be really good. It all gets horribly complicated.

With awards you can at least try to have a gender-balanced jury (although the World Fantasy Awards apparently claim this is hard to achieve because women don’t want to be jurors). With “Best of” anthologies there is at least quite a bit of competition. I think we should all laugh at anyone who produces a “best of” that contains almost all male writers (or all female ones for that matter) and mutter about the paucity of the editor’s artistic taste. And perhaps not buy their books.

As for commercial decisions, and popular vote awards, if women will read books by people of any gender and men will only read books by men, then we can expect to see more men getting published, and more men winning awards. Simple numbers will see to that. We can also probably expect male editors to prefer works by men, even if they are not consciously aware of doing so. The only thing to counterbalance that is that women tend to read more than men, which means there is a big market out there for books aimed at women.

Such imbalances are very annoying, there’s no getting around that. But set against the underlying assumption that women are somehow second class creatures – that a woman can aspire to be like a man, but a man who wants to be like a woman is crazy – anthologies and awards are merely symptoms. We need to fix the underlying problem.

Can we fix it? Possibly not in my lifetime. Such things tend to move at generational speeds. But I have hope. Nicola Griffith has posted some very interesting figures showing how the percentage of literary awards in the Hugos and Nebulas that are given to women has been steadily increasing with time. With the Nebulas the number is even creeping above 50%. The last few years’ Hugos may be evidence of a backlash, they may just be an aberration, or they may be evidence that women are stopping writing the sort of work that wins Hugos. We won’t know for several years.

I think that the best thing we can do it is keep on promoting the positive qualities of women. In our little corner of the universe, that means continuing to talk about what good books they produce, especially when they do so in genres that men like to read. It means writing “great women writers you may not have heard of” posts such as the one Jeff VanderMeer did the other day. It means supporting our own by buying their books and setting up publishing companies and magazines. It means “re-discovering” great women writers from the past who have been ignored by male historians. It means politics, it means Wiscon, it means a whole bunch of things that feminism already does.

Of course it may also involve a certain amount of tailored nurturing of our offspring – not to teach them that men and women are the same, but to teach them to respect and value difference, and to understand that gender is not a binary state of existence.

And every so often it means rubbing men’s faces in the stupidity of the idea of girl cooties. I mean, really, what are they afraid of?

10 Responses to The Gender Balance Question

  1. Pingback: Cheryl’s Mewsings » Blog Archive » Time To Stop Editing

  2. Susan Loyal says:


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  4. Lynn Gold says:

    You’re not the only one who finds those icky romance novels; I never could stand ’em.

    OTOH, I seem to have come from a gender-bent household; my father was the one who read fiction, while my mother only reads cookbooks and the occasional gardening book.

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  6. In terms of reading and “girl cooties” I think it all comes down to power dynamics. We live in a world where the top of the power pyramid is still ruled by (white, heterosexual, upper class/wealthy, Christian–at least in Western World) men. Anyone who is on a lower rung of the power pyramid knows both their own world as well as everything above it. So I’m not saying that a black woman, say, is necessarily higher or lower than a gay white man, but both of them know what it’s like to live in a straight white male world (the default, basically, since that’s where the power is) and so are generally more comfortable about reading broadly (unless they’re trying to “pass” in some way). For men at the top of the power pyramid, though, it’s much harder to get them to engage with or read anything which is perceived to appear lower on the power pyramid–not so much emasculating, per se, although that’s probably one of the easiest ways of this happening, but it is a question of disempowerment or being seen as losing that default power.

    As a related issue of this and how men and women read differently, books with homosexual characters or themes that are written by a woman have much greater mainstream success (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite), because a (presumably) heterosexual male can be seen reading it without his own sexuality being called into question (again, a question of power comes into play aside from everything else), the way it would if he was reading the same book as written by a male author, in which case it becomes a “gay” book (as opposed to simply a book with gay themes or characters) and he’d be automatically assumed to be gay (and no longer at the pinnacle of the power pyramid therefore) by anyone seeing him read it.

    Which is not to say heterosexual white men can’t read down the power lines, but it is much harder (social training, peer pressure) for them to do so, and you can see this even with kids (when I worked at a children’s bookstore in Manhattan, this reading divide became quite evident once kids got into/past middle grades, and keep in mind that kids tend to prefer to read about kids a bit older than they are, too).

  7. Jed says:

    Lots of good stuff in this entry, and I hope to come back to it and think about and comment on it more later.

    But for now, I fixated on one tiny comment-in-passing of yours, about author gender and Hugos, and wrote a response to that. Summary: I think the statistics by decade are a little misleading, because in my view there was a peak in the early ’90s and there’s been a bit of a decline ever since.

  8. Cheryl says:

    Lawrence: You are of course right about power, and that’s one reason why I think we need to respond in a way that doesn’t reinforce that power dynamic. Complaining that a lack of balance is unfair confirms you as a loser; noting that an imbalance is ridiculous and probably bad marketing puts you back on top.

  9. Pingback: Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic » Blog Archive » Gender in science fiction publishing

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