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Still more on gender bias in sf

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(Wrote most of this several weeks ago, but I keep putting off posting it.)

We at Strange Horizons have just about filled up our publishing schedule for 2006, and have started on 2007. Interestingly, even though still only about 33% to 40% of our submissions are by women, in 2006 two-thirds of the stories we're publishing are by women.

I suspect that that two-thirds number is a higher percentage than in any other venue in sf. (The percentage has been going up for us. From 2000 to 2006, the percentages of original stories we've published each year that've been by women have gone 29%, 45%, 42%, 52%, 52%, 59%, 67%.) (For more info about SH's percentages, and the percentages at a bunch of Year's Bests, see the recently updated last third or so of the Broad Universe stats page.) And, of course, it's entirely unintentional--which is to say, like most editors, we don't consciously look at gender in making our decisions.

A few weeks ago, for example, we had a meeting in which we decided to accept seven stories. (We usually accept only about one a week, but for various reasons we hadn't accepted any in a while.) After we'd made the decisions (deciding on each story individually, on its own merits, considering a wide variety of factors, not consciously thinking about author gender at all), just as we were ending the meeting, Karen noticed (and pointed out to Susan and me) that five of the seven stories were by women.

This was only a couple of months after I had noticed that all of the fiction winners of our Reader's Choice survey for 2005 had been stories written by women. At that time, I wrote to Karen and Susan:

You girl editor types must have rigged the vote or something. If this were a real science fiction magazine, run by manly men, as all good science fiction magazines should be, then stories by boys would have won, as is right and proper and natural.

And I added: "Phooey on girls anyway. [...F]rom now on [I] will insist on buying only stories by boys. Think of it as a kind of 'literary affirmative action,' to make sure that boys have their rightful place in our award system."

(Aside: Many people can't tell when I'm joking. This email that I'm quoting was an example of Jed making a joke.)

Sadly, my clever plan appears to have been foiled. I dunno how it happens; we buy these stories, and then we notice that the majority of them are by women.

Which is one of the reasons that I believe other editors when they say that they're not consciously biased toward stories by men. Almost three years ago, I was on a panel at TorCon about gender bias in sf (sparked by the excellent Sue Linville article on the subject from 2002); the following (very lightly edited) is what I wrote about it in my con report at the time, which still pretty accurately reflects my thoughts on the matter:

[The panel] was interesting, and there was some pretty good discussion, though as usual most of the panelists seemed to feel that there just plain isn't a problem. I don't think it's the Biggest Problem Ever, and I think it's getting better, but I think too many of the statistics point toward there being an imbalance of some kind, somewhere.

I think maybe part of the problem with discussing it is that as soon as you use the term "bias," it starts to sound like you're accusing editors of sitting around saying "Oh, she's just a girl, we shouldn't publish this story even though I like it a lot." Nobody actually believes that's what's happening; but I personally think the numbers indicate that something is happening. It's obvious from talking to editors that there's no conscious bias, but it's hard to rule out (or, of course, to confirm) subconscious bias. And of course there are all sorts of factors other than bias that may be contributing to the imbalance (several of which are discussed in the article). I think it's a question that deserves serious consideration[....]

The slush bomb

Okay, so with all of that as background, onward to the latest incarnation of this discussion.

A couple months ago, Charlie Finlay suggested (as a followup to an earlier discussion) that women should submit lots of stories to F&SF on August 18, sparking lots of discussion in all sorts of places, including David M's blog and Scalzi's blog. (Also sparking one of my favorite comment threads ever, a brief exchange between Leah and Celia about The Patriarchy.) I kind of wanted to jump into that discussion, but I never quite put together a coherent response to it.

Recently there's been lots more, such as Ten Days 'Til the Bomb (from Charlie, with debate from lots of others), and You lost me at punished (from Charlie, with lots more debate from lots of others, much of it heated).

I think one important point that's come up recently (as noted by dsnight and Leah among others) is that the proponents of this "slush bomb" have a wide variety of reasons for supporting it; for example, some have suggested that the main point, for them, is to get more women to be more willing to submit regularly to F&SF, not just to get women to submit once. I think a lot of the debate over the merits of the idea has been based on the assumption that the main goal of the slush bomb is to determine once and for all whether Gordon and JJA are showing gender bias; given that editorial budgets are limited, I pretty much agree with the people who feel that it will be hard to draw a valid conclusion about bias based on the number of stories Gordon does or doesn't buy from this set. But if the slush bomb idea will energize and encourage more women to submit sf stories (to F&SF and/or elsewhere) more often, that seems to me to be a good thing.

At any rate, I don't want to debate the merits of the slush bomb here. But I do want to comment on various other aspects of the issue, mostly in the form of some notes on thinking outside the box. The following topics are independent of each other, not meant to be a linear essay.

Submission percentages

One of the points that often comes up is the question of whether the percentage of published stories by women in a given venue is similar to the percentage of stories submitted to that venue by women. One common line of reasoning is that as long as those two numbers are fairly close to each other, there isn't a problem; according to that argument, what's happening is proportional representation, not bias. (For example, John Borneman wrote a detailed statistical analysis that generally supports that argument, though he isn't taking quite that simple a stance; take a look at his article for details.)

I see two potential flaws in that argument:

First, as far as I know, nobody but SH is actually tracking submission percentages by gender in an ongoing way. Gordon did it briefly at F&SF for Sue's article, but the 25%-of-subs-are-by-women number that he ended up with has been bandied about as solid ongoing fact ever since. It may well still be accurate--the percentage of subs by women at SH has stayed very steady over the past six years (to the limit of our ability to measure it; it's possible that there's been a lot of variation in the 7 to 10% of the subs by authors whose gender is unknown to us). But nobody knows for sure what the submission percentages are like (at any of the print prozines), so claims that representation is proportional don't seem to be based on much data. (Added much later: it turns out that there is data for Asimov's: see Author gender and Asimov's, which I posted a few weeks after I posted this entry.)

Sue's article contains several other numbers regarding submissions (in the "Short in the Chest" section), but (a) most of them are estimates, and pretty much whenever anyone does an actual count they end up with lower numbers than they had originally estimated; and (b) the ones that aren't estimates are over short time periods (for example, the F&SF 25% was over a period of less than two weeks, if my understanding of the submission volume there is accurate); and (c) there is always uncertainty in the numbers; note that Gordon also said that 4.5% of the submissions were from authors of unknown gender, which means that the actual percentage by women even in the count he did could be as high as nearly 30%.

And second, it seems plausible to me (though I have only anecdotal evidence) that there's potential for vicious circles here; if women perceive a magazine as not being a good place for women to get published, they may be less likely to submit there, which lowers the percentage of women submitting, which makes it "okay" for there to be fewer women published, and so on. (The major flaw in my argument here is that it would suggest that more women would be submitting to SH over time, which doesn't seem to be happening.)

At any rate, the proportional-representation argument is to some degree testable: as various people have noted, if that argument is true, and if more women submit to venues with low percentages of subs by women, then the percentage of stories by women published at those venues ought to go up. That's one reason I like the general idea of Charlie's suggested plan--but if the main point were specifically related to this proportional-representation thing, then I'd rather see it be an ongoing thing than a one-day event. (Because there generally really is only a limited number of stories a given editor can buy in a given week.) The one-day event is easier to orchestrate and easier to get enthusiasm behind, so I'm not saying you shouldn't do it; but if the proportional-representation argument is valid (and I don't know if it is), then it seems like more women submitting more regularly would be likely to help increase the percentage of women published. So anyone who participates in the slush bomb, I hope you'll also send more stories later.

I'm not saying this is the only solution, of course, nor am I saying that solving the problem is entirely up to female authors. (My main problem with the proportional-representation argument is not the argument itself, but rather the fact that it tends to be used dismissively, to imply that once representation is proportional, then everyone else can wash their hands of the issue and leave it up to the female authors to just submit more.) This is just one factor/element in a multi-pronged approach.

("Pronged." What a male way of putting it.)

Blinding submissions

Various people have recommended that editors remove names from stories before reading them, to avoid being influenced by the author's gender.

As an editor, I like non-blind submissions, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons have to do with "author points" (the idea that I'm more likely to trust an author to know what they're doing if it's an author who's demonstrated in the past that they know what they're doing, and thus that I shouldn't dismiss a story out of hand if it's by an author I trust); my other reasons may be less rational. I can imagine a semi-blind submission system that I might be okay with (such as taking names off subs, but putting some kind of mark on the subs that are from authors we already know we can trust, so we'll know to give those subs a look even if they seem immediately not right for us), but to me even a modified blind-subs system seems like a lot of work to implement for insufficient payoff. (And I suspect many people would say the modified version I just described would negate the whole point of blind subs.)

Still, there's evidence that a blind-subs system could have a substantial effect. For example, jamiam (in comments on Sarah's entry a couple months ago) pointed to Why are there so few women in science?, which includes a table of data from 1983 showing that the same scientific paper got higher ratings (from both male and female reviewers) when it had a male name on it than when it had a female name on it. It wouldn't be such a stretch to imagine that a similar effect could happen in science fiction today, especially 'cause various people have noted that Gladwell's Blink describes similar but more recent findings, regarding blind auditions in orchestras.

So here's a thought: if you're a woman, and you want to see whether you'd have a better chance selling your fiction to an sf magazine if you were male, you could consider submitting under a pseudonym. You could use gender-neutral initials, or you could even use a male-gendered fake name. (Similarly, men who are concerned about SH's gender bias could try submitting under a nongendered or female name.) If the editor buys the story, you can decide at that point whether to switch to your real name or not for the byline on the final publication.

(Note that I make no claim to originality with this idea; cf Tiptree, not to mention several of the great female sf writers who published under gender-ambiguous names.)

I personally prefer that authors not do this when submitting to us, primarily because it messes up the statistics I keep about the percentages of male and female authors who submit to us. I think those stats are reasonably valuable, because (again) I think we're the only prozine in the field that's actually tracking author gender for submissions on an ongoing basis.

(Side note: gender is pretty much the only thing we can reasonably reliably guess from the author's name. It might be interesting to track age or ethnicity, for example, but there's no way to even halfway reliably guess those things from the data we have available to us. And if a lot of authors start using gender-masking or -reversing pseudonyms, we won't be able to tell gender either; it's kind of just a coincidence that the main thing we at SH have historically been interested in tracking happens to often be obvious given the author's first name.)

But for all I know, some authors do the pseudonym thing already. Also, remember that roughly 7-10% of our submissions are by authors whose genders I don't know; in fact, we recently bought a story from an author whose gender we didn't know until after we bought it. (He turned out to be male.) And in some cases, that's because the author's byline gives initials rather than a first name.

I realize that my suggesting use of pseudonyms is politically problematic in various ways; see, for example, Jenn's recent comments about women in MMORPGs disguising their voices. It could be argued that the pseudonym thing is again putting responsibility for the issue on the victims of the discrimination. And if the author keeps the male pseudonym for publication, it still leaves those ToCs looking awfully male. So I'm not saying that pseudonyms are the best or the only approach. There are lots of other valid options. But if an individual author (of any gender) wants to personally test how gender-blind submissions would affect them, it's within their power to do so.

(I should mention, though, that people have different reactions to initials. Some people read initials as male; others--probably including some sf editors--tend to read them as female (perhaps because so many female sf authors have used their initials in their bylines); in other cases, certain specific sets of initials may read as gendered to some people.)

. . . There's a fine line between saying "This situation could be improved if only you female authors would change how you do things; it's your fault that things are the way they are" and saying "Female authors do have some power in this situation; maybe one useful approach, among others, would be to start with the assumption that the editors aren't going to change how they do things, and see what you can do within the existing framework to take some control over these matters." I hope I'm coming down in that second area, but it's a tough line to walk; I apologize if I'm slipping across it.

Creating tools

I liked Cat Rambo's brief discussion of this issue, specifically this bit:

If we want to correct problems, it makes more sense to me to try to change the power structures, to work at becoming editors, slush readers, reviewers, critics. Audre Lord asserted that the master's tools are not the best weapons for dismantling the master's house. Let's create some tools of our own.

Sing it, sister!

For example, if it's true that there are certain kinds of stories more likely to be written by women than by men and that some editors are more inclined to like one kind than the other kind (and I'm disinclined to believe that's all true, but it would explain a lot if it is true), then one way to help address the imbalance is to have more editors who like the kinds of stories women are more likely to write.

(Aside about that kinds-of-stories thing: either Susan or Karen, I forget which, recently noted that we at SH often tend to like stories that focus not just on characters, but on relationships among characters. That's neither necessary nor sufficient for us to like a story (and we haven't done any statistical analysis of this at all--it's just a gut feeling); but I do wonder a little whether (a) women are more likely to write such stories than men; and (b) other sf editors are less likely to like such stories than we are.)

Note that the idea here is not just to have more female editors. (Although that's also a worthwhile separate goal.) Female editors don't necessarily buy more stories by women. F&SF had Kris Rusch as editor for a while, and the percentages of stories by women published in those years weren't statistically significantly different than the percentages published by Gordon in his first several years (according to the Linville article). Asimov's currently has Sheila Williams, and her percentages are about the same as Gardner's were recently (and lower than Gardner's were in the early '90s). Sci Fiction had Ellen Datlow, and iIrc her percentages of stories by women weren't significantly higher than most of the print prozines.

So instead, the idea, from my point of view anyway, is to have more editors who are naturally inclined (without conscious bias or intent) to buy stories by women. Regardless of your own gender, do you generally like the stories you read that are by women as much as or more than the ones that you read that are by men? (I'm not talking about conscious choice here; I'm saying, do you find yourself reading a story and liking it and then noticing it was by a woman, over and over again?) If so, have you ever considered editing a magazine? Or a Year's Best? Or even publishing a virtual Year's Best--an online list of what you would put into a Year's Best if you were editing one?

It's not that easy to become an editor, of course. But bringing in more female-author-friendly editors seems to me to be an interesting approach to the issue, one that--in conjunction with other approaches--might be worth contemplating.

P.S.: Yeah, I'm very aware of the irony in my (and other men's) recommending courses of action for women on this issue. Which is why this P.S. is attached to the only section of this entry that directly quotes from a woman's blog; funny that I didn't notice until I was basically done with this entry that I was linking mostly to men's blogs. But women have had a lot of useful and interesting things to say in the discussions on those blogs.

Leaving the genre ghetto

Nick M. had some good comments that I think got a little buried in arguments over his phrasing and over some of his other comments, so I want to resurrect what I saw as one of his central ideas in that discussion:

Submit outside the genre.

(I realize there was much more to Nick's comment than that. I'm just focusing on this one bit.)

There are lots of non-genre venues that publish fiction (some of which even publish genre or genresque fiction), often for a lot more money than any of the genre magazines can offer. For a start, you might take a look at Mary Anne's literary markets list, plus the venues Nick mentioned.

I totally understand and sympathize with the argument that there's a lot more cachet (among people within the genre) in genre publications than in non-genre publications; sf people may think more highly of you for selling to Asimov's than to, say, Playboy, or Seventeen, or even Salon. But I've seen a lot of writers say they want to be read. Your audience will be far vaster if you sell to one of those slick non-genre magazines than if you sell to even the most prestigious genre magazine. And you'll probably get a lot more money.

But Hannah exactly put her finger on why I don't follow that advice, in her comment on Nick's entry: those of us who've been submitting to the genre magazines for a while know the protocols (to use Hannah's apt phrase). As Nick pointed out in response to Hannah, we who submit in the sf world have been properly trained, but only for the way things work in sf. I spend a lot of time telling authors what protocols to follow for submitting sf--but I try to be clear that I'm only talking about sf, and about the short-fiction part of sf at that, because I know very little about how things work outside my own cozy little corner.

The story I've been working on writing forever has some magical elements in it, but Mary Anne has suggested that those elements can be read as metaphor, and that I really ought to be preparing to send the story out to literary venues in addition to, or maybe even instead of, sf venues. And that's all well and good, but it's scary! It's outside my comfort zone!

But that doesn't make it a bad idea.

Anyway, I have no idea what the percentages of stories by women and submissions by women are in, say, Harper's or the New Yorker. And there's something to be said for not just walking away from the sf-focused magazines; for, instead, trying to make them more inclusive and more welcoming to people who've been traditionally underrepresented in sf. We loves our genre, yes we do, and we doesn't want to abandon it. (I'm not suggesting that Nick or anyone else actually said to do that per se.) Still, in addition to other options, I think it's worth taking a look at some of the other venues out there that might be more inviting, and that might be more rewarding in a variety of ways.

Pushing our editorial boundaries

There's something that I think I don't say often or clearly enough when this debate comes up: I honestly believe that editors should buy stories that match their tastes.

I have noted before that I don't think it's a good idea for editors to buy stories that they don't like just because they think that the stories are probably good stories of their kind and readers might like them. The main problem I have with editors doing that is that it's awfully hard to judge the quality of a work in an area that you don't like and aren't familiar with. You're likely to be unaware of the conventions and protocols and references, to not know what's been done before and what's new, and so on.

However: I think that in some cases, it's a good idea for editors to try to push their own boundaries a little bit, to stretch their comfort zones, to educate themselves about areas they're not so familiar with.

I confess I'm not all that concerned about the percentage of stories by women that SH is publishing right now. If the rest of the field weren't heavily tilted toward stories by men, I might be more concerned; and if we were finding ourselves at, say, 80% instead of 67%, for a period of a couple of years, then I might be more concerned. But for now--and I apologize to the male authors who submit to us for saying this--the gender-balance issue isn't one that I think we at SH need to worry much about for our magazine. (I really hope that this paragraph doesn't turn out to be the only thing that y'all glom onto to discuss. I consider this paragraph to be a minor side note on the way to something more interesting; I'm hoping you will too.)

However, I do fret about other areas, such as the number of stories by authors of color and/or about characters of color that we publish. All three of us SH editors are white Americans, with a background in Western storytelling styles; every time we turn down a story from India, or Africa, or Russia, I worry that we're just blind to its virtues, that there are entire approaches to Story that we don't even recognize as valid. And approaches to language, too; I gather (for example) that Indian English features some significant differences from, say, American English, but I'm not familiar enough with those differences to be able to recognize them.

So I'm hoping to try to stretch my own boundaries a little. It's hard; I'm lazy. But there are things I can do without even leaving my house. For example, I have three of Nalo's anthologies (Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and So Long Been Dreaming), and I haven't yet read most of the stories in those; they would obviously be a good place to start. I have read all the stories in both of Sheree Thomas's Dark Matter volumes, and those have helped, but I still have a ways to go in this stuff. I'm certainly not saying that reading these volumes will automatically give me a full understanding of all cultures different from my own (or even of the cultures represented by authors or characters in those books); I'm just saying that by straying a little outside my comfort zone, I may be able to begin to have a greater appreciation for other stuff that's outside my comfort zone.

So, similarly, I think other editors can--if they want to--try to learn what there is to like in stuff that's different from what they normally like. I'm not saying they should radically change their tastes, and I'm definitely not saying they should buy things they don't like; I'm just saying that exposure can help stretch one's personal boundaries, slowly, over time.

Conclusion

I think it's unfortunate that more stories by women don't appear in most of the major sf magazines, and I'd like to see that change (although not, of course, by the editors starting to publish stuff they don't actually like). I think the submissions bomb will be, at the very least, an interesting experiment; I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

But at the same time, I think it's very much worth looking at this stuff from other angles too. (In addition to, not instead of. Both/and!) What other ways might there be to try to address some of the underlying problems and issues? Would helping more girls stay interested in math and science classes help? What about bringing more female readers to sf? What about increasing the variety and quality of the portrayals of female characters in the fiction? What about becoming a member of, and/or volunteering for, Broad Universe?

What I'm saying, there's no need to pick just one approach. Let's work on this from all sides, come at it (to steal from Nick again) from every direction at once.

12 Comments

Nothing much of content to say, except: Yes.


Your audience will be far vaster if you sell to one of those slick non-genre magazines than if you sell to even the most prestigious genre magazine. And you’ll probably get a lot more money.

That's all very well for, say, Eliot Fintushel, but where are the non-genre markets for exploding spaceships???


I think Marguerite stole the best line already.
I'll second her answer.


Awesome post!
I am in the middle of writing a critical paper for my Masters at Seton Hill on women in SF, and this gives me lots more fodder.
Thanks!


Great summary! I also think SH tends to publish hipper, grungier, and a little more cutting edge stuff than F&SF, which I think publishes more traditional stories. During the whole discussion it seemed to me that a lot of folks want F&SF to take an active role in pushing the genre forward rather than keeping it in neutral. If SH is any barometer, the future of the genre includes a lot more women.

So if you agree that SH is where the genre is headed and you accept that SH publishes a lot of women, then the conclusion is that women are at the forefront of where the genre's going.

Apologies if this has been said more eloquently somewhere else.


I'm going to have to come back and read this more thoroughly when I'm not skipping off to do more work, but I did want to comment real briefly on blind submissions. That is, why I don't care for 'em.

The trouble with blind submissions, IMO, is that if you've got an editor who does any reading at all...they won't be blind. It's just not possible. You can yank names and other identifying features, but what you're left with is the story. And I found (in my blind-submissions experience) that not infrequently, the story is enough.

I was farrr more uncomfortable with that--with being able to (not being able not to) identify stories--when I knew that I wasn't supposed to be doing it than I ever was with just reading the name off of the cover letter. I don't think it affected my choices at all--but with the writers' expectations in the back of my mind, it was a very unpleasant feeling.


The correlation between female editors and female-writer-liking-editors may or may not be strong, but the correlation of men reviewing men, and women reviewing women, among Locus reviewers on the Broad Universe bean-counting page, is startlingly strong.


I'm not sure how I found this discussion. I remember the previous "bias" discussion from a number of years back. I am also moderating a panel at WorldCon on the topic of SF/F being for "girls" as well as "boys." If anyone would like to provide feedback or input, I think that would be great. There's a pretty large group that's commenting here and your input is needed & wanted!

In addition to having two F & SF cover stories in one year, my work is in the current September "Harlan" issue, and was previously in another "Harlan" issue, and somehow survived that to be nominated for some awards.

Of course there's "bias" - but I wonder why F & SF is being targeted. In the long run, I don't think this should have anything to do with the work we choose to write, as either men or women. A few times there were obviously people who could not read or review my work fairly, possibly due to my use of bad perfume or that dreadful mistake with the toilet paper dragging from my shoe, so I stopped paying attention to things strangers wrote or said that weren't "readers" (I do care what readers think - but not people who are reviewing to self-promote).

For the record, last time I checked, I was a woman.

I would urge everyone to send their best work. I am not sure the "lets all submit at once" approach will be helpful. But I believe everyone does have a fair chance. I would like to see more good writers in general writing and publishing their work.


Oh! Gosh - and didn't everyone know that Eliot Fintushel is in reality, a little girl?


>>Great summary! I also think SH tends to publish hipper, grungier, and a little more cutting edge stuff than F&SF, which I think publishes more traditional stories. During the whole discussion it seemed to me that a lot of folks want F&SF to take an active role in pushing the genre forward rather than keeping it in neutral. If SH is any barometer, the future of the genre includes a lot more women.>>

Hi Trent - I don't have encyclopedic familiarity with everything published in each venue. But I've read both, and really got into Strange Horizons when I saw there were stories by my friend Eliot The Little Girl. Well, I enjoyed many of the other stories I read as well (and like - when I say "many" - I might not have seen or been able to finish some stories due to lack of time - really, everything I've read has been very good!)

The work on Strange Horizons is SHORTER than most work in F & SF. There are things with a different tone, and I think there seem to be a greater number of darker stories. If by "edgy" you mean Little Girl and others with unconventional narratives and so-on, you're probably right that I haven't seen too much like that in F & SF. I think that the work appearing online weekly, as opposed in in-print 11 times a year, causes a different mix, too. This is going to sound beastly, but if writers want to break into a certain market, they should read it - and then see if the things they are interested in writing could possibly fit. Not "change" to do exactly what they think the publication might want, but just look for places where it seems to "fit" or match. And then go for it! By the same token, something "new" and "fresh" is always a good idea.


Great summary, Jed. Those of us whose talents perhaps run more to rabble-rousing appreciate the scope of thoughtfulness of your analysis.

As for the discrepancy at Strange Horizons, I think the answer is obviously in the editorial collective; switch the gender of one of the female editors and you'll start running to 66% stories by men. *cough*


Whoops, that anonymous comment was mine.

Charlie Finlay


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