In May, I posted on my blog brightly-coloured pie charts presenting some data about literary awards. They weren't the most gorgeous graphics ever, but they conveyed my point: that the more prestigious the prize, the more likely the subject of the winning narrative will be male. Nothing earth-shatteringly new, but solidly presented. I considered the thing done and went to bed. I woke up to a world gone mad: the post had gone viral. I spent the next three weeks fielding emails and interview requests from global media.
This response took me by surprise because, as I've said, what I was saying was not new. I've been talking about it for years; many have talked about it. But what was new, apparently, was how I presented the data.1 Pictures speak louder than words. Pictures about numbers seem to speak very loudly indeed.
Many of us aren't very good at seeing past our own assumptions (Just look at some of the comments on Judith's post.) We are biased towards our own experience. Data can mitigate that bias. It's hard to deny numbers. Especially if they're numbers others can verify, taken from acknowledge and expert public sources, collated using consistent, transparent methods.
If we want to understand something, we have to be able to see it clearly. Numbers help with that. That's what I've been doing the last couple of months: counting, talking about counting, persuading others to count, and hammering out methods and process.
But I'm a novelist. My forte is words. Numbers are less familiar territory. The last time I paid any attention to the manipulation of numbers was a very long time ago when I studied Mathematics at 'A' level. (And, full disclosure, I ended up dropping that A level in favour of English.) In other words, I do not self-identify as a data geek. I've had my road-to-Damascus conversion, yes; I believe; but (sadly) the conversion did not come packaged with instant mastery of statistical manipulation. At best, then, I'm data-curious.
For that blog post in May, I analysed the last 15 years’ results for half a dozen prestigious book-length fiction awards: Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award, and Newbery Medal.2 The method was simple: for each prize I read the winning book of each year, or a couple of reviews of same plus a sample of the text, and assigned the book to one of four columns: from the point of view of a woman or girl, from a man/boy, from both, or from a character whose gender in some can't be slotted neatly into the usual gender binary. (For the sake of brevity I labelled that Unsure.) Then I collated the gender of the writer 3 with that of their protagonist/s. Then I found a free, web-based chart-making site, and turned the results into pie charts.4
Here's what the one for the Hugo Award for best novel looked like:
At this stage I'm less interested in the Why than the What and the How Many. Why, in my opinion, can only emerge when we dig deeper and get a clear picture of what's actually happening (and manage to look past our biases--we all have biases). That will take time. We need surveys of writers' organisations and ask: When you began your book, what influenced the gender of your protagonist? And then ask agents how they chose the books to represent. And then publishers what numbers of books about women and about men were submitted, accepted, supported etc. Which were submitted for review, and where. Which were praised, and by whom. Which were put on new fiction tables at the front of bookstores and libraries. Which submitted to prizes, and why. Which were long-listed, then short-listed, then chosen for the prize. Then remembered.5
But it has to start somewhere. And that's what I've done. I started Literary Prize Data6, a group to count, share, collate, present, and discuss book numbers. Right now we number about 35 from three continents.7
The group is new: one week old. But already we have people working on the Edgars, the Campbell, taking a more granular look at the Hugos, and more. Some of us are genuine data geeks. Some novelists. Some academic researchers. Some readers. We could use all the help we can get. If you want to help, sign up. Count something. Help design the best way to interpret and present what you and others have counted. Actually counting, and then finding different ways to parse the results, and different ways to display those results, makes the reality more concrete than ever. If we're transparent about what we're counting and how, the conclusion—that not only more men than women win prizes, but that even the women who win are likely to win for writing about men—is difficult to argue.
To go back to the Hugos, another of our group, Eric, plotted the running ten-year average for the percentage of women authors nominated for the Hugo award. As he says, "As Nicola suspected8 things were getting better for a while before dipping in the 90's and then partially recovering more recently... But what's really interesting...is what we see if we show the percentage of women in the membership of the SFWA."9
See the caveats in the footnote, but from the mid 70's to the mid 90's, the percentage of women nominated for the Hugo award tracks the percentage of women in the field. That is, setting aside any barriers to entering the field, once "you're writing SF/F professionally the odds of being nominated for a Hugo were roughly the same for men and women. Since then, the percentage of women in the field has continued to rise, indicating falling barriers to entry, but the award nominations no longer track the number of women in the field, which suggests a higher level of discrimination in the awards selection."10
Soon we'll be able to update the Hugo information. We hope also to have a breakdown of the shortlists in each category. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, if this effort intrigues you and you'd like to help, please consider joining the volunteers who last week began a concerted effort to track and collate this information. The more who count, the less each has to do.
1 Pie charts have been used a lot to show bias in publishing. See, for example, VIDA and the work Niall Harris is doing at Strange Horizons.
2 These are awards that, in my opinion, influence the author’s subsequent book sales and/or career arcs. It’s subjective: I haven’t pulled together reliable data on book sales pre- and post-awards. (Though here are links to three articles which include cherry-picked numbers and anecdata on the National Book Award, the Man Booker, and the Hugo Award.)
3 I assumed that when reviews talked about an author as “she” or “he” that author identifies as female or male respectively.
4 I made it clear on my blog that I was open to corrections. I still am.
5 I talk about this in more detail in an interview with the Seattle Review of Books. And also explain why it's so important that we have stories about women.
6 I have also taken the Russ Pledge, to talk about books by women whenever I talk about books. I then tweaked the pledge to privilege books not only by but about women.
7 I'm not the only one counting. See footnote 1.
8 I have an idea about why, but zero data to support it.
9 "I'm using SFWA membership as a proxy for 'people professionally writing science fiction and fantasy.' It's the best proxy I can think of, but it's not perfect. The other caveat is that I could only find data for three years: 1974, 1999, and 2015 (from [Nerds of a Feather]." If you have more/better data, please share!
10 Eric goes on to say that "one significant aspect of this pattern is that it mirrors what has gone on in other fields. If we look at scientists working in the life sciences, for example, the number of women entering the field has approached parity in recent years, but this hasn't been reflected in the percentage of women in higher-level positions (such as full professor) or the most prestigious awards (see, for example, here and here. A succinct way of putting this is that 44% of biological scientists were women by 2000, but 16% of Nobel prizes for physiology and medicine have gone to women in the last ten years)."