Why Girl Cooties Exists

The following is an updated version of an essay written by one of our members and originally published in James Gunn’s Ad Astra.

Although the numbers of women being published has increased, parity still eludes us, especially in science fiction. Therefore, in response to Dr. Kitts’ challenge at the end of this essay, we will do the following:

– expand our notions of storytelling, language, and subject matter
– solicit and showcase writing by women
– discuss these pieces seriously as literature
– educate the marketplace that we are here and have cash.

The Leaky Pipeline: Where are Women’s Voices in Science Fiction?

By Dr. K. Kitts

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Diego Delso, via Wikimedia Commons

Yearly from 2010, VIDA, a women in literary arts organization, has conducted a study on how women fare versus men in publishing. They totaled the number of female and male literary reviewers, reviews and bylines in approximately fifteen of the major literary venues from the Boston Review to The Times Literary Supplement. What they discovered is that men publish more than women nearly two to one.

Once these data were widely disseminated, several of the publications made concerted efforts to reverse those numbers. Some have succeeded while others have not. The 2015 data show that women now make up forty percent of the bylines in many of these venues.

In response, Strange Horizons (a speculative fiction magazine) conducted their own study to see whether this discrepancy held up in Science Fiction (SF) and fantasy. They tallied the number of Locus ‘books received’ by sex and genre in 2012, and surveyed fourteen magazines examining the number and types of reviews of those books.

They found the overall count of books received in both the US and UK markets unequal with men authoring 694 books versus women at 605. In 2012, women authored fewer than 1 in 3 of the UK science fiction novels.

As for reviews, the study found disproportionately few on books by women and even fewer women reviewers. For example, Analog and Asimov’s had no female reviewers at all and the reviews themselves skewed to 75% or more toward male authors. This is particularly egregious as the Diversity Baseline Survey of the publishing industry shows reviewers to be 89% white, 87% female, 91% heterosexual and 88% able-bodied overall.

Historically, counter arguments against sexual bias have suggested that women don’t submit as often or stop sooner after receiving their first rejections. Studies by Northern Illinois University showed that women initially submit as often as men, but do give up on average 1.4 submissions earlier. However, a study in Science showed that papers with a female first author received more harshly worded reviews than identical submissions with a male first author. This alone could account for the small difference in the total submission number.

Another classic argument is market-driven. Fewer female SF authors are published because women don’t buy SF. It could be just as valid to argue that women don’t buy SF because there are few women authors. However, the argument as a whole fails when taking the following into consideration. According the AWP, Publishers Weekly and Amazon, the single largest purchaser of books are females between the age of 35 and 55. Wouldn’t it make sense to go after that market?

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The Leaky Pipeline

The AWP found that more women enter writing programs and graduate than do men but that they disappear anywhere from 3-5 years post graduation. Where do they go? The National Science Foundation (NSF) asked the same question in a study begun over a decade ago. They found that equal numbers of women and men graduate in the Geosciences as undergraduates, but by the tenured professor level, there are eleven men to every one woman. In the 1970s, the number peaked at ten to one, obviating the argument that women haven’t had time to move up the ranks. Ultimately, the NSF found that it wasn’t so much overt sexual discrimination, but rather minute leaks along the entire length of the career pipeline.

This pipeline metaphor reflects the female experience in SF as well. The first leak originates in Hollywood. SF has allowed itself to be defined by visual media. Previously, SF attracted all types of readers and writers because of its promise to examine all facets of what it means to be human. However, the blockbuster mentality/economic model has effectively neutered the types of stories SF publishers accept. The topic must appeal to everyone and offend no one.

Subsequently, publishers discourage stories that target women because they won’t appeal to the entire audience. Taking this argument ad absurdum, middle grade boys don’t read; and therefore, Rowling’s Harry Potter books should not be published because there’ll be no market.

The next leak occurs in both formal and informal education. In formal education, the AWP reports few writing programs accept genre writers and women are actively discouraged from writing genre-based fiction. This may stem more from a bias against all genre literature rather than SF. But regardless of the exact cause, writing programs shunt women away from writing speculative fiction.

As for informal education, the NSF study found the military/competitive model of mentoring, specifically of weeding out the weak (or in writing: to maintain the idea that if writers can be discouraged, they should be because writing isn’t for them) disproportionately excludes women. The study discovered that these talented women did not leave the workforce, but rather moved into business where the mentoring models were more collaborative and empowering.

This is true for women SF writers. They don’t stop writing, they move to a different form or genre. Audrey Niffenegger, the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, could not get published in SF and sold the book as chick lit/main stream. According to LERA (Land of Enchantment Romance Writers Association), the only genre that has increased both its number of new authors and total books published during the current market contraction is romance. Several romance and chick lit imprints are actively pursuing urban and high fantasy titles.

As a consequence, women tend to publish disproportionately in semi-prozines and resort to fan fiction. In turn, publishing in less optimal venues exacerbates the difficulty in joining professional organizations and moving into decision-making positions.

According to the Strange Horizons study, women publish less often than men in “professional publications” as defined by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Such magazines would include Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Strange Horizons and Tor.com. The only venue to have more women authors than men in the study was Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is not defined as a professional market by SFWA. Meaning, publishing in women-friendly venues precludes women from gaining membership into SFWA. As a side note, only five of the past twenty-eight presidents of SFWA have been women. Additionally, most slush readers are men and despite some women in gatekeeper positions (i.e. Sheila Williams as editor at Asimov’s), the data suggest inherent biases persist.

Even after publication, the total number of female authors continues to trickle away. There are few women reviewers and even fewer women authors who receive reviews. This lack of visibility costs them at award time and in secondary sales in anthologies. With fewer reviews and fewer anthologies, fans and juries are less familiar with the work done by women, and we are back, circling the drain. With weak sales, publishing companies are free to say they don’t want to buy women authors because they don’t sell.

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So if SF doesn’t want women, why should women bother with SF?

In an article in Mother Jones (April, 2012) Erin Belieu says, “I know there’s a part of the feminist world that is like, ‘Hey, screw ‘em, we’ll do our own thing over here,’ and I can see there’s a value in that. But a kind of nudgy part of me thinks: No. I want access, and I want my daughters to have access because we all know there’s no such thing as separate but equal.”

If SF continues to cling to the “stereotypical reader” dinosaur, then the asteroid of changing demographics will vaporize the genre soon enough.

What can we do?

We can reevaluate and expand our notions of storytelling, of language, and of subject matter. We can solicit, and publish writing by women and discuss these pieces seriously as literature. Finally, we can educate the marketplace that we are here and that we have cash.

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