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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-05-08 20:37
Subject: [writing] Gender Bias in SF and Fantasy Short Story Publishing
Security: Public
Tags:links, process, publishing, writing
Toby Buckell comments intelligently on how people talk about ethnic diversity in science fiction. As mentioned previously, ktempest talks about gender diversity in science fiction.

I've been turning this question of gender and racial diversity over for a while, in my own head, in conversations with oldcharliebrown and the_flea_king, and lately, watching it erupt in our little corner of the blogosphere.

For example, there's lately been a kerfuffle over whether F&SF under editor Gordon van Gelder has developed or expanded a bias against women writers. (GVG has been handling this question with admirable grace and professionalism, in my opinion.) Numbers provided by oldcharliebrown indicate a declining trend since he took over the magazine.

Stories by Women as a Percentage of Total Stories Published in F-SF

Source: oldcharliebrown, compiling from historical tables of contents.

It's very easy to look at that chart and conclude that editorial bias — conscious or unconscious — is in play. I don't believe this. More on that below.

From the same source, Asimov's under Sheila Williams has bumped to a multi-year average of 27% women authors from about 24% women authors under Gardner Dozois. Oddly, this compares well to about 25% women authors for F&SF under GVG. By comparison, Realms of Fantasy runs about 44% women authors over a multiyear average. This averaging ignores trending, obviously, but it's still a useful discussion point. Over the past three years, all three markets under discussion have trended roughly flat or slightly up. Taken over larger time spans, the swings are more dramatic, per the chart above.

Other markets have provided data. Polyphony has always had a goal of striving for gender balance in our tables of contents. At the same time, our submissions always ran about 35/65 female-to-male ratio. (Casual observation and anecdotal evidence suggests this ratio holds true in a lot of markets, though Jed Hartman in particular and Broad Universe in general have done a lot of work to run these numbers out in detail.)

Shimmer data provided by maryrobinette shows that over the history of the market, the magazine has published 21 stories by women and 34 stories by men. Due to their blind submission process, she was not able to tell me what the submission ratio was, but this 21/34 roughly maps to Polyphony's 35/65.

I don't think the numbers themselves provide a conclusive evidence of editorial bias against women. If nothing else, the statistical universe is too small for general conclusions, and each market must be taken on its own. Anecdotal evidence would seem admissible in this discussion, and anyone who's ever met GVG, for example, knows him to be a committed, engaged and honorable man who's passionate about the field and passionate about his magazine. Hardly the transparent case of the male oppressor by any stretch of the imagination.

So where do the numbers come from? How do we get from, say, 35% women in the slush pile to 25% in the pages of F&SF and Asimov's, yet 44% in the pages Realms of Fantasy?

To me a strong candidate answer is both obvious and somewhat facile — market bias. Each of those markets has a distinct demographic that it addresses, and that demographic influences editorial selection. The starkest example of this was when Ellen Datlow edited SCI FICTION — though she is a lover of horror fiction, with a very broad and deep understanding of horror and dark fantasy, that wasn't the editorial remit of her market, and so the horror that was very much to her taste was dramatically de-emphasized in her selections for SCI FICTION, given the demographic she was serving.

ktempest asked about "vagina stories". Certainly there are, just as there are "parent stories", "dog stories" and so forth. Yet if the readership is largely male (slightly less than 30% of subscribers to F&SF are female, I believe), if there is a gender bias in the stories selected for publication, it's serving the interests of the paying customers. Is this a problem? It depends on your view of how the world should work. Reading isn't prophylactic, and people who buy magazines for entertainment aren't seeking involuntary enlightenment.

And go back to the numbers for a second. Recapping a few assumptive leaps about F&SF from above, we've tossed out 30% female subscriber ship, 35% female submission ratio and 25% female publication ratio.

Those numbers actually don't seem that whacked out to me. Should that 25% be 30% or 35%? I don't know. Maybe so. But as someone who's edited a competitive market, and as someone who knows Gordon Van Gelder, I can tell you there's no way in hell he's making his selections based on the apparent gender of the author. And his numbers, from readers to submitters to publication, are clustered. Which doesn't scream 'bias' to me.

The racial bias discussion as raised by ktempest, Tobias Buckell and others, is more difficult and more touchy. I don't have numbers to tear into, as race is almost impossible to discern from a submission, except by using the Barnes Principle — "Science fiction is about white people and their imaginary friends." Most of the submitters are white, most of the published authors are white. But due the nature of the process, the bias can't be on the editorial or market side. It has to be on the developmental side, which is a topic for another time.

'Nuff said for now. Fire up the comments and tell me where I got it wrong.
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User: ktempest
Date: 2007-05-09 03:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think it would be helpful to throw out the notion that the majority of people interested in this discussion think that Gordon rejects stories just because they're written by women. I certainly never thought or said that (and I'm not implying that you said I did, I'm just stating for the record). I still feel he may have a gender bias, but that it's an unconscious one that manifests itself in the kinds of stories he likes (boy stories) and who more often writes said stories (boys). It's still problematic, but it's not He-Man Woman Hater.
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Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2007-05-09 03:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What exactly do you want from Gordon, out of curiosity? Do you want him to acknowledge that he has this unconcious bias? Do you want him to set up some kind of system to counter it? Are you asking him to buy stories he doesn't like? I keep wondering about this, honestly. And if the problem is with what he likes, are we asking him to change what he likes? I do not mean this as an antagonistic question, I hope it doesn't come across this way.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-05-09 04:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's an interesting kerfluffle.

I've toyed with the idea of what would happen if I adopted a gender-neutral pseudonym. However, I tend to write with a lot of girl protagonists, so maybe that screws me over in the first place. I have thought hard about that concept. Very hard. And I've thought about the name issue.

Whatever. I'm writing what I damned well please, and if the editors don't like it because it doesn't match a bias, then so be it.

I just need to work on writing better.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-05-09 04:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hell, *I* have written a number of girl protagonists...
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User: dsgood
Date: 2007-05-09 04:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
On race: Like many other people of Eastern European ancestry -- Germans, Jews, Slavs, and Balts -- I have Asian ancestry. It doesn't show on me, but it does on some of my relatives.

I don't think anyone knows how high a percentage of Afrikaaners have nonwhite ancestry. (There are people certain they know, but that's not the same thing.)

Excluding immigrants, a majority of Black Americans have White and/or Native American ancestry.
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User: fjm
Date: 2007-05-09 05:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
if there is a gender bias in the stories selected for publication, it's serving the interests of the paying customers. Is this a problem?

Well, it is if they are declining.

Given that the proportion of women readers of sf seems to be around 45%* now, I'd say --on the basis only of your analysis, I've not really been following the argument--that the magazines are *not* paying attention to the market, they are paying attention to their historical market. Ask the big US car companies what happens when you do that.

(45% was the proportion of women responding to the big reader survey I've been working on.)
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User: manmela
Date: 2007-05-09 07:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've always been against the idea of percentages in dealing with equality. Over here in the UK we have some companies who have (allegedly adopted from the US) adopted a practise where they ensure that a certain percentage of their workforce are from certain ethnic backgrounds. It's one I don't agree with, not because I don't believe in equality, but because (and I'm over-exagerating my example here) I think if a company needs 5 programmers and policy dictates that 2 of them are to be Hispanic, and 3 of them Indian, yet the best 5 candidates consist of 2 Hispanic, 1 Indian and 2 African American, then that's what I believe they should employ.

Likewise, if in future years the best writers are female, then the majority of stories published should be by female writers. I'm not saying that female science fiction writers are worse than men, it just might be that at present the majority of good writers are currently male.

But then myself and just about everyone I know isn't prejudiced, and whilst we know it's out there in abundance, I guess we have a naive view that allegedly sensible grown-up people wouldn't be racist or sexist.

The wonderful thing about writing is that the author is largely anonymous. I've met plenty of male writers who've been a success in the Harlequin / Mills & Boon type of romantic fiction, as well as female authors who write under male pen names.

As for racial bias in Science Fiction, I think part of it might be to do with the fact that if you want to show prejudice in a story, you'll be more likely to draw a parallel by using some sort of Alien species to denote racism. So I don't think Science Fiction authors are prejudiced per say, in fact I think the opposite, it's just that the way a lot of authors depict this is via more fantastical examples.

As I said, I could just be very naive about it all, and it never hurts to question why the percentages are the way they are, and address any prejudices. I'm just against the idea of fixed quotas. It should always be about raw talent no matter gender, race, or any other demographic.
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robin catesby
User: deedop
Date: 2007-05-09 12:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Two questions:

1) Wouldn't JJA, as gatekeeper to the slush be the one to examine for possible 'unconscious bias'?

2) How does BNA bias play into this? When F&SF passes up a damn good story by a (possibly female) no-name author to publish Resnick's latest grocery list, wouldn't that skew the results? (What's the M/F BNA % at F&SF compared to other markets and is there a particular sort of [male] BNA that [supposedly] appeals to F&SF's [supposed] readership?)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-05-09 13:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Re 2), it's not simply bias. BNA's have what's called "newsstand pull" or "cover pull", and that's a meaningful aspect. Also, there's the whole reader trust thing. That topic is more complex than grocery list publishing.

(This is me speaking as both an editor and as someone in the zone between no-name and BNA.)
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2007-05-09 13:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
On the gender issue I can give one interesting (if anecdotal) bit of information. I've used both Kelly McCullough and Kelly David McCullough in submissions over the years and I've racked up something like 4-500 rejections. I started out with Kelly, went to Kelly David, then back to Kelly on advice of my then agent (fits better on a book spine). There is (or at least seems to me to be) a qualitative difference in my rejections depending on which way I submit, and the Kelly submissions (sometimes on the very same stories) seemed to generate more dismissive rejections back before I'd established a professional reputation. For further reference, responses to Kelly were almost always to Miss or Ms. McCullough so the gender assumptions were pretty obvious.
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In a heaven of people only some want to fly
User: chipmunk_planet
Date: 2007-05-09 15:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Which is why (in spite of people saying otherwise, that OH isn't it WONDERFUL that women don't HAVE to do that anymore in SF) I submit using a gender-neutral pen name. Women still have to do that in SF.
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User: ex_paulskem
Date: 2007-05-09 13:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Is this a problem? It depends on your view of how the world should work."

I think this is one of the fundamental underlying issues. Any discussion of bias implicitly (and sometimes explcitly, though that is rare) assumes some normative standard, generally one associated with some definition of diversity. To the extent the real world deviates from the normative standard (whatever it is, in a particualar context), bias is claimed. Fair enough, I suppose, but it seems to me we rarely discuss the validity of the normative statndard that gives rise to the supposed bias.

Why are racial or sexual diversity, in and of themselves, deemed good things in this context? Why do we emphasize those over economical/geographical/age/political diversity? True, race and sex sometimes (perhaps even often) correlate with one or more of those other factors, but that is neither here nor there. Assuming diversity, as such, results in stories with a different voice, a different pov, a different take (and that this is deemed "good"), why should we assume that racial or sexual diversity are the appopriate drivers to focus upon? After all, I suspect a white male raised poor in rural Appalachia would differ just as much (or perhaps moreso) in tone, voice, and take from a white male raised in suburban Seattle as would an African American woman from that same white male. Why should we prefer racial diversity in this context?

To further the previous point, I suspect that were an analysis performed of various markets, one could find bias against stories pushing liberal political ideology, or that almost all authors (irrespective of race or sex) have backgrounds that are middle or upper middle class, that Jews are underrepresented, that authors from poor backgrounds (irrespective of race and sex) are underrepresented, that authors who live in urban areas are overrepresented, and so on. Yet the discussion focuses almost entirely on race and sex, as though those two factors are the primary determinants of diversity. Not everyone agrees with that, which brings us back to the normative question, or, as Jay put it, how the world ought to work.

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User: sensawunder
Date: 2007-05-09 13:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
From the POV of a writer, especially a female aspiring writer, F&SF, Asimov's and Analog are three of the reconized pro markets out there who publish SF. If a woman sf writer like me wants to break into the market, she has a harder time if the editors of said markets don't like girl-cooties -- I mean, girl stories. If F&SF were hiring and were, unconsiously or otherwise, turning away female applicants because they didn't really like women's resumes, would you think it was OK? F&SF and Asimov's and Analog are employers, even if the only pay piece rate wages.
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David Moles
User: scarypudding
Date: 2007-05-09 15:27 (UTC)
Subject: Screaming bias
Those numbers actually don't seem that whacked out to me.... And his numbers, from readers to submitters to publication, are clustered. Which doesn't scream 'bias' to me.

bias, Am. Heritage, definition #3: A statistical sampling or testing error caused by systematically favoring some outcomes over others. The fact that the readers, stories, and submissions all line up doesn't mean there's no bias, it just means that there's a consistent bias from cradle to grave.

I'd love to see the reader male and female populations charted along with that author gender breakdown.

Nobody worth arguing with is arguing that Gordon tries not to buy stories by women. I don't think anybody's arguing that buying "boy stories" isn't serving F&SF's current readership.

But if you make -- and I'm not saying Gordon has, but -- a deliberate decision to buy boy stories because that's what your current readers want, you're also making a statement that you aren't interested in growing your readership in any direction other than "more of the same" -- when you already know that your readership is a skewed sample of the overall fantasy and science fiction reading population. In other words, you've found your niche market and you're sticking to it.

That's a valid business model. It's Analog's business model, more or less, as far as I can tell.

But don't be surprised if it gets under the skin of people who remember, or think they remember, a time when your magazine was for boys and girls.

And if the reader breakdown really does track the author breakdown -- that is, if the hypothetical chart of percent female readership would show the same decline -- during the same period when, so I hear, the overall percent female readership in the genre has been rising -- doesn't that look like a missed opportunity to you?
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David Moles
User: scarypudding
Date: 2007-05-09 15:28 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Screaming bias
(And also, if that's what you're doing, you should cop to it.)
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
User: hkneale
Date: 2007-05-10 08:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My understanding of the idea behind the slush bomb is that one of the reasons that a particular market only buys a certain percentage of stories by one demographic of writers is because that percentage is roughly the same percentage represented in the slush pile.

Raise the percentage in the slush pile, raise the percentage bought, or so the theory goes.

That said, one day may not be enough. It'd have to be a consistent raising of the percentage throughout the year.

I don't have the funds to keep snail-mailing mss internationally to do that. My poor little IT job--another industry that seems to be predominantly male--doesn't quite pay that much.
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User: kate_burgess
Date: 2007-05-09 18:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yet if the readership is largely male (slightly less than 30% of subscribers to F&SF are female, I believe), if there is a gender bias in the stories selected for publication, it's serving the interests of the paying customers. Is this a problem?

As other people have pointed out: it's not a problem if there's no editorial interest in expanding readership--which is a valid decision, whether I agree with it or not.

Speaking as one of those 30% female subscribers, I don't intend to renew my subscription because I'm not getting what I want from F&SF. Though I can't speak for anyone else, I do suspect I'm not alone in that decision. So, is that low 30% female readership because women aren't subscribing? Or because they're not maintaing that subscription, disatisfied with the stories and representation they're getting?

That's a survey I wouldn't mind seeing. ^_~
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Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2007-05-09 20:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What magazines are you getting what you want from, out of curiosity? I mean, are there others that you like, or are thinking about subscribing to?
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-05-10 02:42 (UTC)
Subject: Two Things
First, to me, the remarkable thing about that graph is not the rate under GVG, which doesn't seem to be exhibiting any trend up or down, but the trend down under the previous (female) editor. This would indicate to me that there is something other than some kind of anti-female bias at work.

Second, this is the second (or is it the third?) time that this has come up, and it seems to me that it would be relatively simple for F&SF to change their submission policy so that entries are read blind.
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User: hkneale
Date: 2007-05-10 08:18 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Two Things
I noticed that too. There was a sharp decline in the ratio in KKR's reign just before GVG took over, according to Jay's chart. But just the one issue.

I wonder what precipitated that, and would it have been a trend had she continued to edit F&SF?

Anyhow, I read in another thread on another forum that GVG preferred stories that weren't "emotional". I'm pretty certain I know what he means (which also explains why he doesn't pick up my stories but other editors do. I employ emotion themes in my work).

Now, it could very well be that many women prefer stories with emotion themes. They aren't finding that in F&SF so they stop reading it.
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User: deangc
Date: 2007-05-10 02:43 (UTC)
Subject: That last comment was me
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