Supporting women in SF and women in STEM

The following article was originally posted as part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day 2016, as part of a series of blog posts where inviting women and men in and around STEM to share their personal stories.

I opted to talk about the Arthur C. Clarke Award’s new collaborative partnership with the Ada Lovelace Day organisers, how that came about, and our future hopes for promoting women in both SF and STEM.

To Change, Or Not To Change Is Not The Question. Where to Change However…

Spoiler Alert: this is a piece about science fiction publishing rather than STEM, so if that particular flavour of geekdom troubles you already, you may want to click away now.

The truth is though that the conversations currently taking place in my science fictional corner of the publishing universe about the visibility and opportunities for women SF writers have many direct parallels with those around the support of women In STEM careers.

I want to share one specific example from my own experience in this conversation, and it’s one that I hope might provide a fresh way of thinking for any company or organisation currently trying to find a path between creating active change on these issues on the one hand and struggling to adapt its historic business plan, mission or brand position on the other.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is the UK’s premier prize for science fiction literature, and recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. During those three decades the prize has been won by a diverse range of books by women writers including Marge Piercy, Tricia Sullivan, Pat Cadigan (twice) and Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale won in the first ever year of the prize and many believe set the tone for the award as one that straddles a broad and inclusive definition of science fictional, literary and speculative writing.

Of course I cherry-picked that selection of data so everything sounds lovely, but I could equally have pointed to the years 2003 to 2010 which represents the longest continuous run of male winners of the prize between Gwyneth Jones, Bold As Love (2002), and Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (2011), or the years 1998 or 2013 when the shortlists were both made up entirely of male authors.

I might set aside 1998 for the purposes of this blog, although I’ll quickly note that A) the judges were all male that year too, and B) many of them were the precise same judges that picked The Handmaid’s Tale the previous year, so it’s hard to draw any deep conclusions about gender bias one way or the other, and we might perhaps agree that the judges were acting in good faith on their primary instruction to select for their choice of best books of the year, not deliberately discriminating against genders or indeed genres.

I can talk with much more authority about 2013 however, and that year’s all-male shortlist. The reactions around which represent a particularly complex and interesting case study for the roles a book award such as the Clarke might play in this broader conversation.

The first thing to understand is that while the shortlist itself might have been all male, in 2013 the judging panel was made up of four women and one man. Our Chair of Judges is also male, but that’s a non-voting role, and I’m not usually in the room when the voting is done because it’s my job to go out and talk about the award once the decisions are made, not to try and sway those decisions.

An interesting year in other words, and one made even more complex by the fact that two of those judges, Juliet McKenna and Liz Williams, are excellent authors in their own right and very aware of the broader trends of lack of visibility for female writers outside the context of the award. Liz Williams was even invited to write about how she approached that decision-making process for The Guardian and identified a clear opposition to shortlisting based on some form of quota or affirmative action, even if the end result this time was a shortlist that happened to be all male.

Our judges could, I suppose, have used the time between their original decision and its public announcement to back away from their initial choice and swap out a title somewhere to avoid a bad headline, but really we all knew that a 5 male / 1 female shortlist was going to look just as bad to those people who pay attention to those kinds of numbers, whereas if anything a fairly decided shortlist of 6 male authors actually provided more of a springboard for highlighting the broader issues around that result — namely the low numbers of female SF authors being published and thus submitted for consideration.

That’s the history lesson, and while I make no claim that the debate that came out of that shortlist was directly responsible for creating change, I do believe that having an award with the profile of the Clarke fall under the spotlight in this way was a real asset to the wider debate without necessarily doing much to damage the integrity of the award itself. A Clarke Award shortlist without any form of debate is a rare thing indeed!

And that really is the problem we faced as the award’s organisers when thinking about how we might positively make a difference rather than simply providing a talking point.

We experimented with a few ideas such as releasing our annual submissions list (a complete breakdown of every eligible book put forward to the judges) in two parts to highlight the books by female authors with little apparent benefit to profile or sales for those authors. Plus there was some unintended confusion from people who mistakenly thought a split submissions list was also going to lead to a split shortlist and perhaps even two prizes e.g. best book and best book by female author (definitely not something we wanted).

These responses to our low-level interventions made it clear that we couldn’t tamper with the fundamental principles of the prize, so instead we began to think about what else we might do in that period of time when we’re not actively publicizing our shortlists and winners, and here we think we’ve found a win.

Firstly we’ve started partnering with organisations such as Ada Lovelace Day, the international day celebrating women’s achievements in STEM, offering our support to their organizational committee and in exchange receiving insight from an organisation that has way more practical experience tackling the issues we now want to address in our own field.

And this is the point I want to make to any organisation that, like ours, finds itself with 30 years of history and precedent on the one hand and a desire to make cultural change on the other.

Sometimes you can’t change the fundamentals of your organisation. With the Clarke Award no one wanted anything other than the judging process we always had in place and that was made very, very clear to us in all the conversations around our 2013 shortlist. What you can do instead though is think more laterally and find ways to connect with the issue you want to address that extends your organisation rather than necessarily changing it.

It’s entirely likely that, as with Ada Lovelace Day, there are great organisations out there already doing the kind of things you want to be doing too, and you don’t always have to be first to create those dynamics fresh every time.

Things have changed since 2013. We’ve seen the total number of submissions by female authors rise and more recent winners have included Ann Leckie and Emily St John Mandel, but that rising number of submissions is still only at a third of the total number of books received.

Simple statistics suggests the chance of another all male shortlist is still a high possibility, and while that possibility remains, it makes sense to us to share our experience and our own story with our new partners to highlight that issue rather than back away from it.

Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

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