The Complicated Reality of Gender Bias in Writing and Publishing

I started thinking about writing this article at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year, when I attended a discussion on the role of women in the publishing world and the challenges they face.

If I’m honest, though, it’s been an insect buzzing in the back of my subconscious for years. Any female wishing to succeed in the world of writing is aware that there are unique obstacles to achieving this success.

It’s the struggle to be taken seriously, to balance work and the responsibilities of life, to be typecast into subjects and ideas specific to ‘women’s writing’. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room: a constant reminder that we need to prove our comparative worth.

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Much has been written about the inequality female writers still face and the need to redress this imbalance. Kamlia Shamsie’s excellent article 'let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation' systematically unpacks the gender imbalance in writing by looking at the percentages of female winners of major writing prizes around the world.

For her, this disparity was embodied in a panel about the ‘crisis’ of American fiction. The experts were all lauded American male writers who did not acknowledge the fact that there were no female voices contributing to the mix.

Shamsie whispered to a fellow attendee that ‘clearly the crisis of American fiction is that there are no women in it’.

Shamsie uses this experience as a metaphor for the deeper issue she finds in the modern writing world:




I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc.

The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex."

She’s right: the treatment of women in writing is a multifaceted issue. There’s no simple solution to it, but it must be addressed.

I get the statistics. They’re grim. What I want to know about is the personal experiences of female writers and publishers themselves: whether they mirror my own struggles, whether the issue is as prevalent in Australia, whether there’s been improvement in recent years… whether there’s hope.

Women in writing

Join writer Hannah Macauley-Gierhart as she explores the difficulties faced by women in writing and publishing. Image credit: Bench Accounting via StockSnap Creative Commons

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Of the writers and publishers I talked to, many highlighted issues of professional limitations based on gender. Interestingly, these confines are often self-imposed.

Christine Piper, author and winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for After Darkness, articulates this tension well:

Like many women, I’ve been guilty of self-sabotage: doubting my ability, playing down my talents, taking rejections personally, and being shy about pursuing opportunities. Men are socialised to be confident and champion their abilities (but of course not all male writers are like this), while women are not – if a woman does do those things she’s often seen as arrogant or a ‘tall poppy’."

Prolific children's author Aleesah Darlison echoes this issue of self-perception by detailing how women are often conditioned to view their aspirations as secondary to their other roles:

From what I’ve seen, a male author who is the main breadwinner for the family has a lot more freedom to write, travel and promote his work. Usually, if he’s a published author his work as a writer is considered a ‘proper’ job; he receives respect accordingly and doesn’t need an excuse to spend time building his career.

It’s not always the case with women. I’ve seen many female writers trying to get a start who have to treat their dreams for a career in the industry as a ‘hobby’ and which must always come second to the main (male) breadwinner of the family."

Women in writing

Aleesah Darlson suggests that a woman's writing is more likely to be classed as a 'hobby' than a man's. Image credit: Startup Stock Photos via StockSnap Creative Commons

For women, it seems that establishing ourselves as serious writers can be a huge psychological battle.

Piper references an American literary magazine, Tin House, and their attempts to resolve the gender imbalance in their publication (for more information, see the article in the links below). Rob Spillman, the editor, found it curious that of the writers who were asked to resubmit initially rejected stories, women were five times less likely than men to resend work.

For Piper, the article prompted her to reflect on what it is that makes women less tenacious, less confident:

Although women dominate creative writing classes and certainly form the bulk of fiction readers, they’re underrepresented in published fiction, on reviews pages and as recipients of literary awards. My impression is that the disparity between male and female authors is minimal at the beginning of their careers, but increases over time."

There are no clear answers to this drop-off in female involvement in the industry.

What is clear is that gender imbalance in the publishing industry is a reflection of broader society’s continued preference for the male voice and expertise.

Award-winning Indigenous writer Ellen van Neerven confirms this by suggesting that ‘society calls on men to talk about "important issues" and promotes them into positions of leadership'.

Donna Ward, editor, writer, and publisher at Inkerman & Blunt, also notices this ingrained partiality:

I suspect that while men dominate in positions of power, as teachers of literature, as judges of literary prizes, as literary critics and reviewers, and while they remain unconscious of their bias, they will preference the few male writers over female writers."

Women in writing

Long-standing societal preferences play a large part in the current male dominance of the publishing industry. Image credit: Ryan McGuire via StockSnap Creative Commons

Interestingly, Ward believes that when writers are ‘blind judged’ for publication, women fare much better:

The curious truth my experience has revealed is that when a judge doesn’t know the gender of the writer, regardless of their own gender, they are more likely to choose a woman writer for publication… I think this speaks volumes about our deep unconscious bias toward giving men a [stronger] voice."

There is a subconscious bias against women that, in Ward’s experience, is overcome in the assessing of work that is nameless and genderless. She recognises the difficulty of this when reviewing published books, but hopes that ‘perhaps there are ways to do this, if we put our minds to it’. Indeed.

Aleesah Darlison attributes continued gender discrimination to ‘tradition and possibly even culture… It’s incredibly difficult to change centuries-old thinking, but women are continually striving to move forward’.

Christine Piper also identifies this tradition of preferring the male voice:

I think the gender inequality stems from both the publishing tradition of championing ‘serious’ male writers, as well as more general societal attitudes regarding women’s interests and their role in society – for example, the assumption that women write feel-good, domestic fluff, whereas men write more intellectual, literary work."

Interestingly, Piper notes that women can have a role in continuing this paradigm, as their lack of self-promotion or confidence fails to challenge the stereotypes put on them.

How to develop a unique writing style

Sadly, a subconscious bias against women writers seems to be rife in the publishing industry. Image credit: Nirzar Pangarkar via StockSnap Creative Commons

The need for clear female voices in publishing is apparent. van Neerven believes that ‘female writers are also commentators and change-makers; it is a real mistake to keep their opinions hidden’.

Darlison echoes this conviction that ‘it is important that women continue to support each other in their writing endeavours, but as long as this doesn’t exclude male counterparts. Both genders have so much to offer literature’.

There is hope for the female writing and publishing voice, but it’s not an easy road ahead.

With a host of articles and discussions about gender equality in publishing recently, as well as the emergence of women-focused awards such as Australia’s Stella Prize and publishers resolving to only publish female writers for a period of time, it seems that there is more awareness of women’s historically under-appreciated place in this industry than ever before.

van Neerven believes that this is because ‘there is more of a public consciousness now and a language we can all access when we want to talk about these issues'.

Darlison confirms this new sense of communication by suggesting that:

More women have a voice these days, and they’re allowed to express it, and are often behind the initiatives to empower and support women. They’re networking, setting up writer’s groups, festivals and events. They’re championing the cause of other women. They’re creating their own opportunities PLUS they have an amazing capacity to share all they learn."

Conversely, Ward thinks that men are still overshadowing the great progress women have made in the industry:

My impression is that there are a lot of women writing, being published and working in the industry, but, as with many female-dominated industries, men have risen to positions of power and are awarded prizes.

There’s a kind of unrecognised boy’s club in Australian publishing… With so many women in this industry, it is completely surprising to me that we have to raise awareness of women writers. The fact that we do speaks to the existence of [this] club."

Women in writing

Donna Ward suggests that there's a certain "boys' club" mentality in Australian publishing. Image credit: Zak Suhar via StockSnap Creative Commons

Ward is glad for the emergence of women-focused awards, which challenge deep bias in established prizes that ‘unthinkingly award men’s writing so frequently’, but she articulates a deep surprise I also feel that successful female writers still need to fight against patriarchal dominance.

It is the twenty-first century, after all.

So what does the future look like for female writers? Piper believes that she will see women writers achieve equality ‘probably in my lifetime', and recognises the great impact of initiatives like the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge on shifting societal attitudes.

She furthers this by suggesting:

I do think the current awareness of the underrepresentation of female authors is part of a wave of enlightenment occurring across the globe in different industries: the realisation that women receive less recognition than men for their work – and this awareness is the first step in creating change."

Darlison is similarly optimistic about the future for women in the writing industry:

I think more opportunities will be created by women as they become more empowered and continue to work together. There are actually a lot of women working in the publishing industry – not just as authors and illustrators – but also ‘behind-the-scenes’ as publishers, editors, agents and so on, so the future looks very bright for women."

Ward believes that ‘like all aspects of prejudice, it is consciousness that will counter it’. She suggests that mandatory quotas for publishing women, equal opportunities for positions of power in the publishing industry, and more equitable awards will ‘bring a future we’d all prefer’.

Literary agents

Despite the myriad difficulties they face, many women are optimistic about the future of gender equality in publishing. Image credit: Bench Accounting via StockSnap Creative Commons

Piper and van Neerven call for a clearer equality amongst women themselves. van Neerven says she’d ‘like to see more diversity in the female writers given a platform in this country. Publishing can afford to take more risks… Let’s publish the writer, no matter if she’s not pretty, thin, white, urban, heterosexual and highly educated’.

This concept resonates with Piper, who touches on 'the inequality that non-white writers experience in the predominantly Anglo-centric publishing world… the books that win literary awards and that receive newspaper column space, and the authors themselves, continue to reflect that white, Anglo-centric point of view.

'I’m optimistic that we’ll achieve greater ethnic diversity in the future' – an achievement that she believes will still come some time after the current push to recognise female writing.

It’s an important point to make. We have to be careful to support and promote women’s writing in all its forms as we strive for equality; we must avoid reinforcing new stereotypes in the place of old ones.

It’s clear that the place of women in publishing is a complex one. Though great roads have been made towards parity, there is still a long way to go.

There’s hope, though. It’s a bright future for women if they have the tenacity and drive to expect more for themselves.

Women in writing

Let's look towards a bright future for women in writing. Image credit: Adrianna Calvo via StockSnap Creative Commons

FURTHER READING:

Kamila Shamsie: let's have a year of only publishing women – a provocation in The Guardian

'It isn't Rocket Science': Tin House and Granta Editors on How to Run a Publication That Isn't Sexist by Emily Temple

Under-Representation of Women in Writing – Piktochart

4 Comments

  1. Nick Earls
    • Hannah Macauley-Gierhart
  2. BJ
    • Hannah Macauley-Gierhart

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