Gender parity, science fiction and the Arthur C. Clarke Award

Arthur C. Clarke Award
May 9 · 18 min read

We review 13 years of submissions data from the Arthur C. Clarke Award with Ada Lovelace Day’s Suw Charman-Anderson

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is one of the only literature prizes to publish its complete submissions list of books received every year.

What began as an experiment has now become over the last decade a regular feature of the award, and is as anticipated by many as much as the reveal of our shortlist or even the announcement of our winning novel.

We publish this data freely every year so everyone can review the ‘year in science fiction,’ and this year we’re also taking the challenge ourselves as part of a broader future review of the award.

For this article we’ve compiled the submissions data going to back to 2006 (when I first joined the award’s governing body) and split it out by gender as follows:

I then shared this with our regular collaborating partner Suw Charman-Anderson, founder of Ada Lovelace Day, and the following conversation took place over several days via email and Google docs…


TOM HUNTER: So, Suw, as someone actively promoting women in STEM, what’s your first take on seeing this data, how does it compare to the STEM field, and what immediate questions does it provoke you to ask in turn?

SUW CHARMAN-ANDERSON: I’m quietly surprised by the submissions list data, and happy to see that progress has been made from a low point of 13% women in 2007 and 2008 up to a high of 32% in 2015. The increase in submissions from women does appear to correlate with an increase in books submitted, though 2018’s data is a little disappointing, in that it’s a high water mark for the overall number of books but is accompanied by a slight dip in the proportion of women.

Credit: Suw Charman-Anderson

But when you compare the Clarke Award’s figures to those for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), they look pretty good. Recent data from the ONS, analysed by WISE [1], show that women make up just 8% of the STEM-related skilled trades, and engineering is not far behind at 12%. IT (professional) sits at 16% women, IT (technicians) at 17%, science and engineering (technicians) at 27%, and science (professional) roars into the lead at 43%.

Lumping the data together in such coarse categories, however, conceals a lot of variation. If we look at more granular statistics for undergraduates in the UK [2], we find that computer science and engineering degrees are both 18% female, maths is 37% female, whereas veterinary science is 78% female, and medicine 79%.

That dominance of veterinary science and medicine by women is not necessarily a good sign. HECSU’s Futuretrack research project has shown that women value “socially useful work” and working for an ethical employer more highly than men, and what can be more socially useful or ethical than saving lives, whether human or animal? But why do women put a premium on these kinds of careers? It is, perhaps, because girls are conditioned from birth to be ‘nurturing’ and ‘caring’?

When we look at the Clarke Award data, there are several questions we cannot answer: Are these numbers reflective of publishers’ overall publication record? Are they publishing more books by women now than they were ten years ago? Is one third of their publication list by women? Is one third of their author list female? Or are they simply submitting more books by women?

Equally impossible to address are questions about the wider writing community. Are more women writing science fiction now than ten years ago? Are more women getting published? Are women buying more science fiction?

The conclusion must be that we need more data. Much, much more data.

TOM: I agree completely on that last point about needing more data, and if it wasn’t already such a challenge simply chasing up the books themselves from submitting publishers I’d almost certainly be asking them all to fill in detailed questionnaires about their authors, their publishing plans, marketing budgets and the like as well!

Even with the regular release of all of our submissions data, I’m actually of the opinion that book awards are not necessarily the best sites to focus debates on visibility and parity and so forth upon — whether they’re fan voted or juried prizes, they’re often simply too slippery to really focus down on in the way you have with employment data.

For example, in its 30+ year history the Clarke Award has had two years with an all male shortlist. The first was back in 1988, and the jury happened to be all male too. Case closed you might say, except this same jury panel was the one that voted The Handmaid’s Tale as the award’s first ever winner just the year before, so not quite so clear cut perhaps?

The other year was 2013, and that year the jury was 4 women to 1 male juror, so a different picture again.

The data is messy basically, and even those most extreme of years are more complicated than they first appear.

Conversely, I also hold the competing opinion that awards are still one of the best sites for this type of conversation precisely because they are visible and people often care a lot about them.

When we announced an all male shortlist in 2013 there was rightly a lot of conversation, and no little consternation, at that news, at least initially, and some of that was basically people asking “how could they not realise in this day and age?” when of course we did.

I remember getting the phone call on the day the judges made that decision and Andrew (Chair of Judges, Dr Andrew M. Butler) and I were both aware right away, as were the judging panel who arrived at that decision book-by-book and judging on a whole swath of criteria other than gender until they had a settled shortlist; an it’s only then that you can look at the list as a whole and see the obvious.

We could have locked the judges back in their room and made them reconsider swapping out a book to avoid the furore, I suppose, and certainly there have been many years when the award has nominated just one female writer out of six, but what would have been the point?

It might have avoided all the headlines along the lines of Arthur C. Clarke announces all-male shortlist but it wouldn’t have escaped the notice of all the people who actively watch awards for precisely this type of detail, and it would have also been a massive wasted opportunity to highlight the issue.

One reason, I think, that awards can be extremely useful in terms of conversations around visibility of authors is that awards tend to accrue controversy somewhere no matter what’s on their shortlist, and as such can be pretty practiced in terms of resilience and weathering immediate criticisms while also actively contributing to the longer-term conversation — I’m pretty well versed in people vocally declaring the Clarke Award an irrelevance one year only for those same people to return and critique all over again from a different (often contradictory) angle all over again the year after!

SUW: The Clarke Award is unusual in publicly releasing all of its submissions data rather than, for instance, a long list, what first prompted this decision?

TOM: When we first started experimenting with releasing our full submissions information it was to try and challenge preconceived notions of what science fiction was (or might be) and who was writing it.

To paraphrase what we were hearing was something like:

‘I don’t know who any of these shortlisted authors are, and, because I don’t know and I consider myself something of an expert on SF, they can’t be important or the best books of the year. Ergo, the Clarke Award is deliberately picking obscure / borderline SFnal book titles for it shortlists in some kind of misplaced quest for literary legitimacy at the expense of the heart and soul of the science fiction genre.’

Something like that anyway.

When I first became part of the Clarke Award team there was still this long-burning notion, probably going back all the way to our first ever winner with The Handmaid’s Tale, that the award was in some way deliberately ignoring the core SF genre with its eye on becoming the Booker of the SF world.

From this point of view robots, faster-than-light spaceships, laser blasters, actual aliens as opposed to the metaphorical kind (whether coming in peace, vast and cool and unsympathetic, or dripping acid blood all over the place) were all perceived as being entirely out of favour.

The actual year-on-year shortlist data didn’t really back this up, of course (and still doesn’t), but that was the challenge we were facing then, and the most obvious way of getting ahead of the problem seemed to be to release all of our submissions data — a move that no award really seemed to have adopted at that point, although I would definitely recommend it.

SUW: There are dozens of organisations and projects in the UK trying to encourage girls to study STEM subjects at school and university, and supporting women working in STEM. Businesses sponsor organisations like Ada Lovelace Day, as well as running their own advocacy projects for girls and women in STEM. Have there been any such campaigns in publishing to encourage women and girls to read and write science fiction? What are publishers doing to diversify their submissions lists?

TOM: Sadly I’m not aware of any specific initiatives from within the publishing industry that have been aimed at encouraging women and girls to read and write science fiction, but I’m hoping that someone reading this will get in touch and correct me!

I’m also aware that there’s an understandable caution from many female SF writers about being associated with initiatives that are often well-intended and designed to help but that only serve to further separate them from their male peers.

One personal example I have of this is the year we released our submissions data in two parts, female and then male authors. This was 2014, the year after we had announced an all male shortlist.

This was an experiment in exactly the mode of our decision to release the full submissions data in the first place, but decidedly less popular.

There wasn’t a backlash as such, but from a data point of view we noted immediately that there was less engagement when we promoted the first part of the list (the female part) compared to if we had simply released all of the submitted books in one go, and we also started receiving worried queries checking that we weren’t going to do the same for our shortlist.

I even heard that some authors were denouncing us on private newsletter groups for having decided to release two separately gendered shortlists and even that we were planning a separate award category for female SF authors only, although that had never even crossed our minds.

Rumour is so fast in our community I’m surprised writers don’t try and power spaceships with it rather than FTL!

What I learnt from this is the importance of promoting messages like ‘this book is awesome!’ versus ‘check out this awesome book by a female SF writer!’

I’ve applied this continually on places like our Twitter channel since using trackable links, and certainly there seems to be a strong sense that simple positive promotion or recommendation works more powerfully. Couple that with a sense of FOMO such as a time-limited ebook offer and we definitely see sales notching up.

(Side note: I’m definitely not suggesting that people will only buy books by female SF writers at crashdown prices, this effect works just as well for male writers. My point is merely that buzz is better generated by messages of new and exciting and buy it now and we see a great response to his from both male and female readers).)

One of the main areas that has come under scrutiny in recent years is the display of titles in bookshops, especially on promotional tables.

Now, it’s no secret that a lot of book placement these days is paid for (so publishers are complicit in this too) but we’re increasingly seeing the practice of ‘If you’re a fan of X, here’s some other titles you’ll like’ type promotion being called out for focusing primarily/exclusively on related male authors either by intent or by lack of forethought. Not to single George out, but the Game of Thrones phenomena, for example, led to many incidences of this in the promotion of fantasy novels.

Things are starting to change however, and I’m definitely starting to see women only SF tables appearing and, crucially, being marked as the hot new thing with no explicit mention of the gender of the authors involved in the promotion.

Similarly, I’m increasingly noting publisher and agents promoting open calls for new submissions, and these are often accompanied by direct statements that a diversity of authors are being sought.

I also think that, for the SF&F genres at least, there’s huge potential in the novella format right now.

The shorter length form is great for new authors, and potentially makes it easier for readers to try out a new writer without committing to another epic trilogy; plus from an editor’s point of view you potentially have the chance to put our more content a year across a much wider base of writers and really play to focused niches while still delivering a good potential for profit.

All of that said, I think perhaps the single biggest campaign that comes to mind right now would be the whole Sad/Rabid Puppy incident that surrounded the Hugo Awards a few years back.

One of the obvious consequences of that, I suspect, has been a broadening of awareness and an active seeking out of new reading experiences and authors within the wider science fiction community.

I’m thinking here especially of readers who might be connected to the SF community, but likely don’t identify themselves as active participants within it who are now being actively drawn to ‘boldly seek out new work.’ I think we’re seeing a much more engaging and curious response to new authors and stories from readers, which creates a virtuous circle for those publishers canny enough to recognise and respond to the changes in the marketplace.

Of course, that’s the exact reverse of the Puppies intended mission to undermine the Hugo Awards, but really any science fiction fan should be well aware of the law of unintended consequences! [3]

SUW: It’s interesting to hear that there’s a worry about projects that ‘single out’ female authors, because that’s an issue that I sometimes hear about with respect to initiatives to support women in STEM. And it is a problem, though not in the way that it might seem.

At the moment, women in both STEM and SF face an uphill struggle due to both explicit conscious bias, and implicit unconscious bias. We have to work twice as hard for half the reward, and even when we do succeed, there is still an assault course full of barriers for us to clamber over to maintain that success.

We know that there are fewer female book reviewers, and that fewer reviews cover books by women — the annual VIDA survey last year found that only two out of the 15 major literary publications surveyed featured 50 percent women writers. The New York Review of Books featured only 23 percent women writers [4]. We know that novels with male protagonists are more likely to win awards than novels with female protagonists [5]. Books by male authors are more likely to make it on to school and university reading lists than books by women [6].

The barriers women face are structural, so we need to take a structural approach to solving the problem. And that means projects, schemes and even awards that are focused on supporting women. When people talk about how this is in some way unfair, what they are actually saying is that the existing structural unfairness that prevents women from fulfilling their potential is acceptable, but combatting that unfairness is not.

The argument that women don’t want to be singled out because of their gender is predicated on the belief that women are fundamentally less competent than men, and that men are succeeding because of their innate abilities whilst women only succeed because they’ve been given a leg-up. This is nonsense. Schemes, projects, awards, even quotas for women are about removing systemic obstructions so that they have the same opportunities to fulfil their potential that their male counterparts automatically get by virtue of being male.

In my opinion, both the publishing industry and science fiction fandom have been remiss in not working harder to remove these widespread barriers to women engaging with science fiction as writers, reviewers and readers.

TOM: So, what does success look like? In other areas of my role that is easier to manage — did we get books in, how did people respond to the shortlist, is there money in the bank for the prize etc — but while I’m aware that achieving a gender parity for science fiction is a process not just a one off result, I’m still keen to look for measurable outcomes.

On some measures people might actually argue the award actually performs better than expected given the gender ratios in its submissions, for example across the past 32 years of the award 40% of the winners have been women, and that’s despite a long stretch between 2003 and 2010 when no female writer won the award. But while it’s okay to know we perform better than the expected low bar, what are the real measures to look for do you think?

SUW: Success for the Clarke Award and success for the publishing industry, for the literary media, for writers, for readers, for fans, these are all intertwined, and we can’t have success in one area without success in all of the others.

For me, success is about equality of acceptance, opportunity, and outcome. We need to get to a point where every girls and women feels the freedom I felt as a child and teen to read science fiction, where girls see themselves reflected in heroic female protagonists and see female antagonists that they can feel emotionally engaged with. I want to see those girls growing up to feel welcomed into fandom, able to engage with science fiction culture in all of its forms without for a moment being made to consider their gender.

I want women to be able to write science fiction, and write about female characters, without having to wonder whether they need to adopt a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously, and without having to question whether their female protagonist will scupper their chances of being published. And I want the literary media to employ an equal number of women reviewers as men, and to publish equal numbers of reviews of books by women and books featuring women as men.

Some of these things can be and are being measured. We can push for pay equality and review equality specifically because the gender pay gap and the gender review gap are being measured by government and VIDA respectively, which makes it easier to campaign.

The number of women submitting manuscripts and the numbers of books with female lead characters could be measured, and might be being measured, but if they are then publishers aren’t providing that data. They should. We need to have some insight into their submissions list versus their publication lists in order to be able to spot any biases in their process. We know from research done on hiring processes that implicit biases damage women’s chances of getting a job, but also that there are relatively simple interventions that reduce the impact of those biases. If we had a clearer insight into publishers numbers and processes, we could work on interventions that reduce the impact of the implicit bias against women from which we all suffer.

Other goals are harder to measure directly, which means we need to get creative. I’d like to see some research into girls’ reaction to and relationship with science fiction and how that changes over time. We know, for example, that younger girls feel enthused about STEM subjects, but they lose that enthusiasm as they get older [7], so do we see the same pattern with respect to science fiction? And as research gives us insights into what we need to do to maintain girls’ enjoyment of STEM, studies could help us craft interventions to help girls feel confident in their passion for science fiction.

My suspicion is that a lot of the factors that influence girls and women’s attitudes to STEM are mirrored with science fiction. And we need to see the same approach: a multiplicity of projects, each taking a different approach to level the playing field and provide the same opportunities to women as to men.

Ultimately, this is going to take a commitment from publishers to invest in girls and women, a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and to engage with and support groups and experts already working in this field.

We can do better, and we should do better.


1. https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/statistics/2018-workforce-statistics/

2. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/what-study

3. Of course, the Puppies might counter-claim that recent Hugo Award nominations simply proves their thesis that the award has been underminded by social justice warrior types, but to my mind that’s just a conspiracy in search of a tinfoil hat. The more obvious thought is that fandom has always been opinionated and fractious and divided across a hundred different connecting shared points of interest, and pretty much the only thing that united it was to respond to a focused and deliberate attack on one of its favourite institutions. After that was seen off it was back to business as usual. The fact we’re seeing a massive increase in women writers and writers of colour on the Hugo shortlists now may precisely be because the Puppies made sure to highlight those writers to a wider fandom in the first place!

4. https://www.vidaweb.org/the-2017-vida-count/

5. https://qz.com/417819/theres-a-gender-gap-in-prize-winning-literature-not-between-the-authors-but-the-characters/

6. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/school-reading-lists-overlook-half-the-world-20150908-gjhuhz.html

7. https://news.microsoft.com/features/why-do-girls-lose-interest-in-stem-new-research-has-some-answers-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/


Bio for Suw

Suw Charman-Anderson is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Each year, ALD hosts a flagship science cabaret event in London, whilst around the world independent groups put on their own events. The organisation also works year round to raise the profile of and support women in STEM, producing a podcast, resources database, free education pack for teachers, posters and women in STEM crochet patterns.

Prior to working full-time on Ada Lovelace Day, Suw was a social technologist and, as one of the UK’s social media pioneers, worked with clients worldwide. A freelance journalist, she has written about social media, technology and publishing for The Guardian, CIO Magazine and Forbes.

In 2005, Suw co-founded the Open Rights Group, a digital rights campaigning group. As its first Executive Director, she prepared the organisation’s response to the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, and gave evidence on digital rights management to the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group.

Suw has had a passion for science fiction since she first started reading her dad’s collection as a young teen. A self-published author of novellas, she’s currently working on her first full-length novel.

Bio for Tom

Tom Hunter is the current director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the UK’s premier prize for science fiction literature.

FAQ

Q: Why does the total of male and female authors sometimes add up to more than the number of books submitted for some years?

A: Every year there’s usually one or two books that have been co-authored and for the purpose of this count we have counted each author separately.

There were a couple of other ways of working this out, but we felt that it was important to acknowledge each author. After all they’re still a person with a book deal, which is important for wider analysis of the industry.

Q: How did you check the data?

A: Lots of desk research basically. We made sure to research every author and to be sure to check biography details, choice of personal pronouns and so forth. In the case of openly trans authors or similar we have made sure to respect their own personal choice of gender in our count.

Q: You’ve chosen to only break the data down by gender here. Did you consider other approaches too?

A: This particular article focuses on gender parity in science fiction publishing as part of our ongoing collaboration with Ada Lovelace Day, a connection that first came about following the Arthur C. Clarke Award’s all male shortlist in 2013.

We’re also interested in the balance of SF&F specific publishers versus non-genre submissions, small press and independent author numbers, the broader thematic trends in the year and similar.

While representation of LGBT authors is a big issue, it’s not possible for us to reflect numerically as part of this project. Similarly we have not looked in such detail at the number of writers of colour in any one submissions year as the number of submissions have historically been so low that a percentage-base analysis wouldn’t yield much additional insight. We’re very happy to note that this is changing for the better though both in terms of award nominations and number of submissions.

For more on this topic we have an accompanying piece in The Bookseller here.


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Medium.com channel for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature. Posts by award director Tom Hunter (includes personal opinion & speculation)

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