Sexism in the Writing and Publishing Industries

One of my greatest loves in life is reading. It turns out that I (as a woman) am not alone in this passion. According to data by YouGov, women were more likely than men to read 11 or more books per year, while men were more likely than women to read 1–10 books per year.[1] In fact, women are more than 4 times as likely as men to say they’ve read more than 50 books per year[2] (and my roommate is one of them—she’s read 94 books this year so far). In short, women read more than men. 

And, it turns out, there are more female authors as well. As of 2016, sixty-three percent of writers are female.[3] And yet, even with readers and authors being majority female, female authors still experience sexism within the writing and publishing industry. This probably isn’t surprising at this point, given how pervasive sexism can be—anyone read Invisible Woman by Caroline Criado-Perez?— but let’s explore this anyway.

First, it’s important to recognize that female authors experience sexism in complicated ways based on multiple factors including the genre they write, what audience they write to, their age, their race, and sexual orientation, among others. Here, I’ll mainly focus on sexism experienced by women authors who write in stereotypically “female” genres and by women authors who write in stereotypically “male” genres.

Shannon Hale, the author of The Princess Academy, reveals in a recent blogpost the persistent sexism she receives as an author who writes about princesses (perhaps the most stereotypically female you can get). She records the experience she had at a school assembly where only middle school girls were allowed to attend, assuming that boys wouldn’t be interested in her books. At least one boy at the school had liked her books and wanted to attend, but by the time he got permission to do so, he felt too embarrassed to go. Yet, when Hale asked the school administration if both boys and girls went to the assembly of a male author who recently visited, the answer was yes. This, Hale writes, reinforces “the falsehood that what men say is universally important, but what women say only applies to girls.”[4]

Admittedly this is only one author’s experience. It’s an experience that occurs frequently for her, but perhaps this isn’t a general problem. But here’s the thing, it’s not just her experience. Many female authors, such as Gayle Forman, Alison Croggan, Libba Bray, and Maureen Johnson, have spoken out about how they and their books aren’t taken seriously. In a recent article written by Maureen Johnson, author of Truly Devious, she says, “a man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simply more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.”[5]

Johnson has experienced this first hand with the cover of one of her books, The Key to the Golden Firebird, which is about three sisters struggling with the falling-apart of their family after their father dies. It’s a pretty heavy topic. The cover of her book? A bright pink background with a young woman striking a pose and the words “a novel” in a pink heart. The cover doesn’t really convey the somberness of the subject matter, does it? This is such a frequent experience for female writers that Johnson asked her Twitter followers to picture a book, and then picture what the cover would look like if the author was of the opposite gender. You can see some of the results at the link in this article.[6]

The cover for Johnson’s book “The Key to the Golden Firebird”, with a woman on the cover posing and the words “a novel” written in a pink heart.

Sexism is also visible in pay disparities in the writing industry. There is data that shows that women’s writing is valued less than men’s. A study published in 2018 found that book prices for genres with more female authors are cheaper than book prices for genres with more male authors.[7] “Overall, books that are identified as having a female-named author cost 45% less on average than male-named. Even after the researchers accounted for price disparities between genres, female-authored books were on average still 9% less expensive.”[8]

There is also a 25% gap between the average earnings of men and women writers,[9] and this may also have to do with the fact that male authors receive 56% of media attention of review coverage[10] (remember there are more female authors than male!). The VIDA Count, which has “broken down . . . literary journals and well-respected periodicals, tallying genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world” over the past 10 years has found that only 3 of the top literary journals and periodicals published 50% or more women and non-binary writers.[11] Women authors just aren’t getting the same amount of attention as their male counterparts, despite being a larger proportion of the industry.

Female authors in the traditionally male-dominated genres of science-fiction and fantasy have unique battles against sexism as well. The sexism against female authors in this genre has been highlighted by the nominations for the Hugo Awards in the past few years. The Hugo Awards is widely considered the premier award in fantasy and science fiction, and the books in the awards are nominated and voted on by science-fiction and fantasy readers themselves. A group of readers, led by Vox Day, thought the awards were turning into “left-wing diversity lectures” and called it an “affirmative action award” because more women and people of color were being nominated.[12] They decided to boycott the awards and vote together as a block, nominating either ridiculous titles or titles that, for them, more traditionally belonged in the genre (that is, books written by white men).[13] 

Books authored by female authors are also less likely to be taken seriously in science fiction and fantasy. This is shown in the debate between the merits of “hard” and “soft” science fiction, where “hard” sci-fi is written to be more scientifically accurate, while “soft” sci-fi is less concerned with scientific accuracy and more concerned with the social aspects of the novel. Women are more likely to be accepted into soft sci-fi, which holds less merit because the world building in these books doesn’t strictly follow scientific theories.

Only 16% of sci-fi authors who have been awarded the prestigious “Grand Master” award are women.[14] This isn’t just because there are less female authors in sci-fi (only 25% of sci-fi authors are female).[15] Women are more successful in sci-fi/fantasy if they write under a male pseudonym, such as Alice Sheldon who wrote under the name of James Tiptree Jr., or if they make their names gender-ambiguous by using initials.

Almost twice as many men read sci-fi than women do.[16]  Sarah Gailey, a speculative fiction author, brings up a potential reason why women might not feel drawn towards science fiction. She says, “We can give a wizard access to a centuries-old volcano-powered spaceship, but we balk at the notion of a woman who has never been made to feel small and afraid.”[17] She brings up a good point. Many of these science fiction novels are set in the future. It’s disheartening to realize that, even in these futuristic novels, women still don’t hold equality with men.

Now, I want you to try a little experiment. Go to Google and search “best sci-fi authors.” How many are women? How many are people of color? Next, search “best beach reads.” How many female authors are on those lists? Search “best serious fiction” and “best light fiction.” What do you notice?

If you are feeling overwhelmed at this point, it’s okay. There are things we can do! If you decide to take one of these action steps, comment and let us know how it went for you.

  • If you are a reader of sci-fi/fantasy, vote and nominate books in the Hugo Awards! Female authors N. K. Jemisin and Arkady Martine  have won the Hugo Award in recent years because of increased voter turn-out.
  • Shannon Hale recommends that when we shop for books for kids, we don’t shop by gender but instead by genre.[18]Boys can read books about princesses, and girls can read science fiction! Your gender doesn’t define your interests.
  • If you notice you mostly read books by male authors, branch out. And although this post specifically talked about male and female authors and didn’t go into the intersectionality of race and sexual orientation, this goes for people of color and LGBTQ+ authors as well.  
  • Get your book reviews from organizations that review male and female authors equally. You can find how well different literary journals and periodicals are doing at VIDA Count (www.vidaweb.org). The New York Times, Poetry, Fence, and Kenyon Review are all good options.

-C.M.


[1] https://today.yougov.com/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2018/08/14/reading-books-men-women

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/03/06/chart-the-percentage-women-and-men-each-profession/GBX22YsWl0XaeHghwXfE4H/story.html

[4] http://www.squeetus.com

[5] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gender-coverup_b_3231484

[6] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/coverflip-maureen-johnson_n_3231935?1367956789

[7] Weinberg DB, Kapelner A (2018) Comparing gender discrimination and inequality in indie and traditional publishing. PLoS ONE 13(4): e0195298. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195298

[8] https://qz.com/1264678/chart-books-are-cheaper-in-genres-dominated-by-women/

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/18/male-and-female-writers-media-coverage-reveals-marked-bias

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://www.vidaweb.org/the-count/2019-vida-count/

[12] https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-science-fictions-women-problem-58626

[13] Ibid.

[14] https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-science-fictions-women-problem-58626

[15] Ibid.

[16] https://www.statista.com/statistics/470748/favorite-book-genres-gender-usa

[17] https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-science-fictions-women-problem-58626

[18] http://www.squeetus.com

Image Sources

Cover for The Key to the Golden Firebird: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10276854-the-key-to-the-golden-firebird

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