There’s an ongoing…

There's an ongoing discussion right now about sexism in spec fic editing. It's a discussion that comes and goes, but it's flared up again, and I felt the need to post something in clarification. Note: while I have been an active magazine/anthology fiction editor in the past (for several years), I haven't edited anything in the past few years, concentrating on my own novel-writing. This may actually help my take on the discussion, since I have experience, but no publication currently at stake. :-)

Sorry this is long.

There are three axes of gender at play here, and it does no good to confuse them.

Axis 1. Stories written by women.
Axis 2. Stories with female protagonists.
Axis 3. 'Girl' stories.

Axis 1. Stories written by women. This is probably the most important/dangerous axis from an editor's point of view, in that, if I were editing today, I'd be very concerned about my own unconscious biases. Numerous studies (and books analyzing the studies) have overwhelmingly shown that in today's society, both men and women consistently and constantly give preference to men in the marketplace. There are some minor exceptions (i.e., in erotica, it's a bit easier to get published with a female name), but by and large, editors are people too, and influenced on a deep level by prevailing social paradigms.

This is a hard bias for editors to admit to, because consciously, you may be trying very hard to be unbiased. But it's critical to realize that your conscious efforts are almost certainly inadequate -- and probably woefully inadequate to the task. In this arena, the unconscious mind wins.

Given this, if I were editing today, I would make my first pass on reading incoming submitted material a blind pass, stripping off all author names, and would do whatever automation of process that was necessary to make that possible. (Yes, I know this is somewhat onerous -- the thought of actually implementing it makes me groan a bit. And yes, this is easier to automate for those editors who take electronic vs. print submissions -- but it can be done for either. What it requires at the print level are reliable volunteer(s) to strip the names from manuscripts and create a tracking sheet for materials before passing them on to the editor.) At this point, I consider blind evaluation a minimum professional standard for combating the deep and pernicious gender bias in our society, and would strongly argue for it in professional situations across the board -- hiring employees, promotions, etc., to whatever extent it's practically feasible.

Note: Some editors may then choose to revisit the stories (after an initial blind read) with names re-attached before making final rejection/acceptance decisions, in order to balance possible 'name weight' issues with non-discrimination practices. An editor may well decide that a slightly weaker story by a big-name author, for example, is the best choice for their publication, or that a story by an author they enjoy and trust deserves a second or third read before rejection. I consider that an understandable compromise practice, although it should be handled with some care.

Axis 2. Stories with female protagonists. This is a greyer area, since it's not a question of active discrimination, but rather a question of encouraging diversity in the material you present. I consider this a purely editorial decision in some ways -- if Jed, for example, decided that he just preferred stories with male protagonists, and wanted to publish only those, I'd say that was entirely his decision. I'd have no problem with a magazine titled 'All-Male Adventure Stories' -- as long as a proportionate percentage of the stories submitted by women were being published by the magazine. I.e., if one-tenth of the submissions are by women, roughly one-tenth of the published stories should also be by women. (If they aren't, then there are two possible explanations: editorial bias in a non-blind editorial process, or women just don't write male adventure protagonists as well, which I find implausible, but can at least be checked for using a blind process.)

That said, speaking purely as a reader, I prefer to read some fiction with female (people of color, queer, etc.) protagonists, and am more likely to enjoy a magazine/anthology/book that features a mix of characters that seems at least vaguely representative of my own experience in the real world, which is highly diverse. Does that mean I won't read a book that's all about white men? Not at all -- if I were reading Horatio Hornblower stories, given the historical time and setting, I would find it completely appropriate that the stories center on white men (though not necessarily straight white men :-). But allowing for cultural specificities and other valid reasons why an author might choose to focus on a particular gender (ethnicity/orientation), I both prefer reading diversely, and am a member of a diverse readership that would like to occasionally identify closely with the protagonist of a story. A canny editor will likely take that into account when choosing material for publication, and publish stories with a wide range of protagonists to appeal to a broad range of readers and reader tastes.

Axis 3. 'Girl' stories. Which we are currently defining (apparently) as stories putting a high priority on emotion/characterization and putting low-priority on (though not necessarily leaving out) cool whiz-bang ideas and future tech. I have a lot of trouble with this labelling method. While I do, personally, tend to prefer stories that prioritize emotional and character development, I think labelling them 'girl' stories is a too-convenient shorthand that may actually reinforce pernicious gender stereotypes.

Some women write very characterization-heavy stories, yes -- so do some men. And vice versa. I strongly resist the idea that female (or male) writers tend to write one kind of story over the other -- and even if they do, that may be a temporary cultural construct, and/or artifact of the publishing market. In any case, I don't think it's an editor's responsibility to try to compensate for that perceived, possibly imaginary, correlation. Can we just talk about 'characterization' stories vs. 'idea' stories, please?

With that gender-neutral framework in mind, it seems much easier as an editor to simply say that I would want to publish stories that provide the strongest presentation of emotion/character *as well as* idea. If forced to choose, I would probably choose an 'characterization' story over an 'idea' story, unless it really was a superlative whiz-bang idea. But that's just a matter of personal taste, and if a magazine wants to focus on idea stories, and has a readership devoted to them, then as long as axis 1 and 2 are addressed appropriately, then axis 3 should be left entirely up to editorial/readerly discretion.

And that's my two cents on the matter.

6 thoughts on “There’s an ongoing…”

  1. I’m probably gonna stay out of this round of the discussion over at Night Shade, for various reasons, but I wanted to add a side comment about blind submissions, which I’ve been meaning to post for a couple months but keep forgetting (and I’ll probably re-post this in my own journal at some point with a few more details):

    Last time we were discussing this online, someone pointed to an article that mentioned a study that appeared to show that when articles were recently submitted to professional science journals under gender-neutral or male names, they were given better scores by peer reviewers (who were professionals working in the field) than when the same articles were submitted under female names.

    It turns out that several aspects of my description above reflect a widespread misunderstanding about the study in question.

    The study was Paludi & Bauer (1983). It was done 25 years ago, and the articles were “in the fields of politics, psychology of women, or education” (rather than science) and were shown to undergraduates rather than to journal reviewers. Rob Kirby has an article about how the misunderstanding arose.

    Paludi & Bauer’s actual results is nonetheless fascinating, and I’m certainly not saying that there’s no gender bias based on names attached to works. But I do think it’s worth noting that one of the most common studies cited in this area is widely misunderstood and is much less recent than is generally implied.

    I don’t know anything about the orchestra study that I hear is cited in Blink, so I can’t comment on that.

    Do you know of other studies in this area? (I don’t mean that as an attack, of course; I would honestly be very interested in seeing what other work has been done on this.)

    …The other thing I wanted to note is that I’m still uncomfortable with the proportionate-percentage criterion, in a variety of directions. My main discomfort with it is that it seems like it would be easy for that criterion to result in changing the percentages submitting over time. If 10% of subs are women, and therefore 10% of the stories I buy are by women, then women may decide that my magazine isn’t friendly to female authors, which may (a) reduce the likelihood that a woman who’s not submitting to me will start, and (b) result in some of the women who are submitting to me deciding to stop. Next year, maybe only 9% of the subs are by women, and so I publish only 9% stories by women, and so on.

    But I should note that I have no scientific evidence that this happens (though I do have anecdotal evidence, but that’s not worth much), and in fact the only scientific evidence I have (SH’s stats) suggest that I’m wrong and that this doesn’t work that way.

    …I think it’s also worth noting that the exact percentage of subs by women is never known, due to gender-neutral names and initials and such, so if I’m getting somewhere between 15% and 21% stories by women, and I’m publishing 14%, it’s easy for people to say “Oh, 14% is pretty close to 15%” and miss the fact that 14% is only two-thirds of 21%. I’ve certainly seen this happen in various rounds of this dicussion.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Some of the summaries I’ve read recently were in Virginia Valian’s book, _Why So Slow?_. I’ve looked at various actual studies over the years, including the orchestra one, and they were pretty overwhelming in their assessment of bias in a variety of forms (the ‘height’ example is particularly striking), but my memory is terrible for these things, and I don’t keep notes.

    I could ask Kevin for specific references; he generally has a better sense of this stuff than I do. But I suspect a Google search would be at least as effective, and I imagine there are others reading this (or on various relevant mailing lists) who are much more up on this than either of us currently are.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    And to address your second point, if that actually happened, that women self-selected out, that would be an unfortunate consequence. But I’d still be far more comfortable with that than with editor bias, personally.

    It also seems far easier to combat once blind reading practices are acknowledged to be in place at a particular publication.

  4. A few mathematical journals have experimenting with blind refereeing. I was once, in 1975 or 1976, sent a topology paper to review with the author’s name deleted. The peroblem was that within a paragraph or two, I knew who the author was from his writing style. So, I am wondering to what extent this is really possible.

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    David, that happens, and the smaller the field of contributors is, the more it happens. But every little bit of bias-elimination helps, in my opinion.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *