No More Shrinking

There are many reasons for a dearth of women in the upper echelons of the media, but female writers first have to toughen up

As a veteran of the fight for feminism I ought to be satisfied. Equal rights, opportunities and pay for men and women, non-existent when I was young, have come to be taken for granted in our society. We won.

Or did we? A recent spurt of complaints about the underrepresentation of women in almost every field of creative endeavour suggests that there are still battles to be fought. “Cultural femicide” is bewailed by one writer. Another produces statistical evidence showing “the erasure of women from public life”. Women working in creative and media industries, according to the training organisation Skillset, are better qualified than their male counterparts but in comparison with them are underrepresented and underpaid. The chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation said that very few women, in any sport, are involved in decision-making. Numerous reports have pointed out the underrepresentation of women in science and mathematics. A recent parliamentary committee discussing abortion had no female members.

The Guardian pointed out that men’s voices dominate the airwaves (the figure is between 75 and 95 per cent) and their words dominate the newspapers, in which roughly a quarter of bylines are women’s. 

At least in the world of books there is a decent proportion of women: they are in senior publishing posts, they are successful agents and influential literary editors, and there have always been famous women writers and  critics. Yet it was because prize lists were so dominated by men that the Orange Prize, for women only, was set up. There is no equivalent to right the imbalance in reviews but things have not changed much in the 25 years since a book called Reviewing the Reviews identified a bias against women reviewers. As one  woman writer recently remarked,  “Literary commentary is like a party one hasn’t been invited to.” 

In my own speciality of crime fiction, about one third of the books published in any year are by women. The percentage reviewed is far smaller however hard the reviewer tries — and I do try. A disproportionate number of women crimewriters are published by firms which have ceased to send books out for review. Of the 53 crime novels I received last month, only 13 are by women. As for science fiction and fantasy, from comment published about those genres you would think women never read them at all. 

Does it matter? Yes, it matters, because if buyers have never heard of a book they won’t search out the electronic version or go into a bookshop to buy a printed copy. So it sells less well, so it makes less money, so the publishers drop the author from their lists. It also matters because editors who commission comment and criticism inevitably select contributors whose names they know. These more ephemeral extras, journalism and broadcasting, are not only PR opportunities but can bring in a sizeable percentage of a writer’s income.

The imbalance may be due to commercial decisions based on a curious fact, as Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary, University of London point out: “While women read the works of both sexes, men stick to books written by men.” 

We liberated women must also blame ourselves. When a journalism commission or a radio or TV appearance is arranged, the chosen contributor is often invited because he has made contact previously, selling himself, offering his services or “pitching” for a commission. 

All literary editors agree that many more men offer themselves to review books than women, and most women writers are too thin-skinned to risk repeated rebuffs. Female colleagues admit, and so do I, that we take “no” as an answer because we take rejection personally. We don’t tell ourselves “they hate my idea” but “they hate me.” 

It is editors and producers who can change things; it is readers and audiences that can make them realise they need to. In the end commissioning more female contributors could be a purely commercial imperative.  But women must change too. We have to toughen up. After nearly 40 years of equal rights, the shrinking violet’s day is surely over. 

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