Sexism in Genre – Myth or Menace? (for the British Fantasy Society 2013)

Is the SF, Fantasy and Horror world full of leering sexists? Should women at conventions routinely expect to be groped and just shut up while the boys have their fun? Can women with the temerity to claim that their writing is worth reading expect to be patronised or ignored by the publishing world? No, of course not. Hurrah, genre sexism is a myth! Not at all. It’s a very real problem and one we must all address. Let me explain how both these things can be true at one and the same time.

SFFH is not full of sexists and those few there are find themselves increasingly rejected by the rest of us. The majority of women at conventions these days have a fun and unpestered time. The majority of men behave like civilized adults in this respect, even during a weekend celebrating comics, books and films that the rest of the world might dismiss as kids’ stuff. Even when everyone’s had too little sleep and perhaps a little too much to drink. Granted, our world isn’t perfect. There have been high-profile, inexcusable cases of sexually offensive and predatory behaviour intolerable in any social context, not just at conventions. And the way such news circulates far more quickly and widely these days is definitely a good thing.

Thanks to the Internet, when response to harassment at conventions has been inadequate, justifiable indignation by women and men has prompted vigorous and increasingly constructive discussion. When some have sought to minimise such offences or dismiss them as aberrations, women and men have come forward with firsthand accounts of their own unpleasant experiences, especially in decades past when such behaviour was far more readily ignored in wider society as well as at conventions. Yes, some still try to wave away the evidence but that only shows how threadbare and inadequate such outdated excuses are. It also handily identifies the tediously unrepentant so those of us living in the 21st Century can ignore them.

While reading about the crap some people have faced, and still may encounter, has not been pleasant, this has all prompted progress. Consensus on the value of convention codes of conduct is emerging. Women can be increasingly confident that if they have to report an unpleasant incident, it’ll be handled as they would wish. Men are increasingly well informed about what it feels like to be cornered by a creep who won’t take no for an answer. The conversation’s gone well beyond overt harassment as women have shared their experiences of being talked over in conversation whether on panel or in a bar, or worse, denied any chance to speak at all. Now men are much better able to spot the full gamut of problematic behaviour and be ready as an ally should a woman want one.

So the trend for conventions is positive. What about publishing? If there ever was a time when male-dominated genre publishing automatically undervalued women, those days are long gone. Every SFFH list here and in the US has a solid roster of female editors and a good number are now in charge, having learned their business from the ground up, promoted from within. Indeed the only recent accusation I’ve seen of sexism in publishing came from a disgruntled man convinced that a feminist (probably lesbian) conspiracy was denying him his book-deal, fame and fortune. A quick look at any best-seller or award-winners list shows that for the nonsense it is.

So why do people like me insist that sexism continues to put women at a disadvantage. Let’s start with those best-seller and awards lists, still dominated by men. Old-school sexists claimed this merely proved men were inherently ‘better’. Writers from Pat Cadigan to Tricia Sullivan to Lauren Beukes to JK Rowling have shown that’s nonsense. But women writers are still under-represented as genre’s top earners and award-winners, not least because far fewer women enjoy the same prolonged and sustained writing careers as men. This is inherently sexist and it’s a problem.

Who’s to blame if sexists in SFFH are few and far between? No, forget trying to allocate blame. That’s the single most unhelpful aspect of this debate. When people cannot blame specific individuals, it becomes all too easy for the idly unconcerned to claim this proves the problem doesn’t really exist or that sadly, there’s no solution since there’s no one to pin the fault on. Even finding someone to blame rarely helps. Very few complex problems are caused by one individual. At best, proving the individual being pilloried doesn’t deserve it leads the conversation back to ‘oh well, what can we do?’. At worst, debate becomes a divisive and personalised downward spiral.

Still, it’s easy to see why people love to pin the fault on someone. Then it’s not your fault, so you can’t be expected to do anything about it. Wrong. One person can’t tackle everything reinforcing sexism in our genre but everyone can do something.

Review coverage is significantly and persistently skewed. Roughly speaking, women write 45% of genre books while men write 55%. About 30% of reviews address books by women against 70% focusing on male writing. How is this fair, either to the writers or to the readers who would like a full and balanced picture of their reading choices? If you agree that this is wrong, let the magazines and websites know.

A common excuse is ‘we must cover the books people want to know about’. Let’s consider how those books are almost always written by men with those well-established writing careers which their widespread reviews help sustain. That visibility also keeps such books in the forefront of people’s minds when they’re considering what to nominate for the Hugos or the BFS Awards or the Gemmells. So if you review, for a magazine or a blog, at whatever level, how about making a commitment to broadening your scope? Cherry-picking books by established stars may not be deliberately prejudging the rest but it certainly puts the others at a disadvantage. When that perpetuates the historical dominance of male writers, it becomes sexism. Lack of deliberate intent is irrelevant when this is the outcome.

Even if you don’t write reviews, you can think beyond the obvious men if you’re filling in a nomination ballot. Do it when someone in your family or office asks you for a list of good books. If you can’t think beyond the obvious men? Broaden your reading until you can. You won’t suffer for it. Take the word of bloggers who’ve tried the 50/50 challenge and really enjoyed their new discoveries. Honestly, there are far more good books out there than any one person could ever read.

Women writers are under-represented in anthologies and in short fiction magazines as well as in novel submissions to the major publishing houses. What can we do when women’s culturally-conditioned reluctance to put themselves forward is well documented in a great many fields? Well, every major or small press editor can consistently publicize their willingness to read work from female writers. If an anthology asks for stories by invitation, those invitations should be 50/50. A magazine editor can keep a careful watch on the gender balance of work picked for publication. If there’s not enough good stuff from women, an article highlighting and honestly regretting the fact will go a long way to encouraging more.

None of this means accepting substandard work from women. That does a disservice to every woman, not just the one being patronised. Not that it’s likely to be a problem. Editors see a higher initial standard from female writers simply because society demands more of women entrants into most fields. What editors can legitimately do, with two pieces of work of equal merit, is opt for the one by a member of any group currently or historically under-represented, to increase the breadth and depth of the genre overall. If you’re concerned that this is still discrimination, the legal profession is applying this principle to overcome their own burden of cultural inertia.

If you don’t edit anything? If you read a good story by a woman, let her know. There will be some way to reach her online through her editor if not in person. Share your new discovery with other readers on the Net. If you’ve appreciated a woman’s contribution at a convention, let her know. Let the organisers know. Since we’ve come full circle to conventions, when organisers commit to panel parity, to offer women equal opportunities for visibility and interaction with fans, let them know that you approve. Because you will. Events with panel parity are discovering how it generates fresher and more varied discussion.

I could go on but you get the idea. You don’t have to be at fault to take responsibility for making things better, in whatever way you personally can. Sexism in genre really can be made a thing of the past if everyone commits to being part of the solution.

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