While women strive to improve the gender imbalance in the literary world, men can and should strive to be good allies. As readers, writers, programmers, editors, and publishers, men in the field are in prime positions to make a tangible difference for their female colleagues. Here are some challenges for the men of literature.
When women talk about the discrimination they face in the industry, or about their own experiences, listen. Actually listen. The litany of sexism women writers are subjected to is never ending. Even Nobel prizewinners think that sentimentality is the hallmark of women’s writing – remember when VS Naipaul said, ‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.’
And when women speak up about inequality, they’re labelled as privileged whingers.
Nobody is claiming gender inequality is personally your fault, and it isn’t an inexcusable crime that you haven’t had to think about this inequality until recently (or right now). That’s privilege in action. Writer Alexander Chee describes the realisation of his privilege as such:
The evidence, once it was pointed out to me, appeared everywhere — I felt like a character in a science fiction novel who discovers he’s living in a dystopia … I was surrounded by men taught to speak over women and permitted to lash out aggressively after being challenged by women. Professors – even female professors – called on men first and privileged their ideas, even when they were bad ideas.
But now you know! And once you’ve had your eyes opened to the fact that there are more barriers for some members of your community than there are for you, it’s your responsibility to recognise this privilege and not take advantage of it. Otherwise you’re part of the problem.
Be a good ally for women and look for ways to do something about it.
If you see a woman writer being subjected to sexism, don’t stay silent. When women experience sexism and men ignore it, women notice; ‘the silence of our friends is so much more painful than the noise of our enemies’.
Stand by us, speak out publicly against hateful behavior, highlight the good work we do and let other men know it’s not okay to target women and subject them to harassment. ‘But WHAT CAN BE DONE’ has some great suggestions on how to offer genuine support for women experiencing sexism, particularly in an online context.
Read women writers
When so much of the literary canon is old white men, and when, as VIDA and Stella count numbers show us, so much publicity and media coverage is given to current male authors, it can be easy to fall into the habit of reading the greats and the ‘next big thing’. This will inevitably lead to you reading fewer women. Take the initiative to seek out books by women writers. If you don’t know where to start, check what made the long and shortlists for the Stella Prize and the Bailey. Commit to doing the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Australian writer Jack Heath spent a year reading only women writers, leading him to draw some interesting conclusions about his own reading habits.
Recommend women writers
Here’s an experiment. Ask another man who his favourite authors are, or what his favourite books from the past year were. You’ll be lucky to hear a token woman make the list. Once you’ve taken up the challenge of reading more women, you should be able to add a few of those excellent books to your favourite lists. And if you’re one of those authors, editors or publishers who are asked to contribute to ‘best of’ lists, don’t forget women there either.
Many times when programmers are asked why there is yet another all-male panel on stage, or another all-male roster of writers in a publication, they will talk about having approached a women who turned them down, or how the eminent voices in that particular field just happen to be men.
But there’s a reason a blog called ‘Congrats, you have an all-male panel’ exists. Think harder. Look harder. Find the other voices.
While this article focuses primarily on gender, the same rules apply for diversity of all kinds. Seek out people of colour, LGBTQI writers, people with a disability, Indigenous writers – all the voices not currently being heard. Your program or publication will be stronger for it.
Women face an uphill battle as they progress throughout their careers. In workplaces they face unconscious and affinity biases in many forms. Nieman Reports describes the self-perpetuating cycle in American newsrooms:
men are in charge, and are more likely to promote other men. Women see fewer women rising to top jobs and grow more likely to leave journalism. Thus, fewer women are around to apply for those promotions. Men become even more likely to promote other men to the most important posts.
If you’re an editor looking for writers to cover a particular beat, it’s natural to think of those close to hand, people who have written for you previously or people you like. If the first name you think is a man, fine. Sometimes he might be the right person for the job. Or maybe he’s the person who works hardest at self-promotion in his field. But maybe there’s a woman just as qualified who doesn’t feel confident to promote herself in the same way.
When hiring, also consider that men are more likely to apply for jobs or volunteer to write about topics they are not necessarily qualified for. Studies show that our implicit bias (that is, biases we are unaware we hold) ‘not only makes [hirers] doubt women’s abilities; it impedes [our] capacity to filter the boasting of men’.
Much has been written about the confidence gap between women and men. If you are in a position where you are responsible for hiring, commissioning, programming or otherwise selecting participants, you need to be aware of this gap and work actively to overcome it.
If you want more women to consider contributing or applying for roles, here’s a handy resource to help you consider ways to attract woman candidates. If you’re an editor, proactively approach women writers whose work you like. They might be less likely to pitch you cold, but if you let them know you’d like to see them write for your publication, it might just be the confidence boost they need.
Women are often told to ‘lean in’ to their careers. But to succeed, we often need the assistance of others in our industry. We need introductions, guidance, someone to ask questions of, an example to look up to. Mentorships can be an excellent way to achieve this. Unfortunately women, and particularly women from diverse backgrounds, have trouble finding and accessing mentorships (both formal and informal). As Geneva Overholser, former editor of The Des Moines Register puts it, ‘we all self-replicate: “Ah, this fellow reminds me of myself when I was a cub reporter!”’ Again, consider your affinity bias. If you find yourself mentoring or assisting mostly men, think about making yourself available to help women progress in their careers.
Think twice before you say yes
When you are asked to appear on a panel or at an event, ask if there will be women appearing. If the answer is no, explain you don’t appear on panels without women. If the answer is yes, ask if there is gender parity. If the answer is no, politely ask if perhaps the organisers might like to redress this balance. Women make up 51 per cent of the population so should be making up 50 per cent of the public face of any industry. And yes, that might mean you have to give up your spot on the panel.
If you are on a panel with women, step back and allow them to answer questions first before you jump in. Men are socialised to dominate, to speak up easily and freely with their opinions. Likewise, if you’re chairing a panel, don’t always call on a dude from the audience for the first question. Men are often quick to raise their hand, but if you wait just a few seconds, you will see women raise theirs too. Try to ask questions equally of both genders. And if you’re a male audience member, maybe hold off on asking your question until women have had a chance to put their hands up. This goes doubly if you’re at an event about women.
Put your money where your mouth is
Men in Australia earn, on average, 17.1 per cent more than women. This is borne out in statistics from our industry. Publishers Weekly annual salary survey showed that, in 2013, the average pay for men in American publishing was $85,000. Women were earning just $60,750, despite the fact that they make up the vast majority of employees in the publishing workforce (74 per cent).
So what can you do? Donate 17.1 per cent of your speaking fee/article payment/book royalties to an organisation dedicated to supporting women in literature. Go on. And before you tell me you can’t afford to do that thanks to the terrible rates of pay for writers, think about the fact that women would have to work approximately 64 days per year more than you to earn the same amount of money. Think long and hard about what that 17.1 per cent buys you that women don’t even have the option of spending. Now donate to The Stella Prize.
Look for opportunities to take action, support women writers and oppose sexism in practical ways. And don’t ask for praise or special consideration when you do it. Sometimes you might find women are prickly when issues related to sexism come up, but as Sam Killerman eloquently says, ‘it’s a dangerous line of thought to think that it’s the oppressed group’s responsibility to make things more comfortable for the oppressors’.
Being an ally is a process, not an identity. Work at it, make mistakes, keep working at it and, as Killerman suggests, ask yourself this: ‘are you an ally because you want all people to like you? I hope not. Are you an ally because you want all people to experience to a world that is equitable and socially just?’
I hope so.
So take the challenge. You now have active ways to be a better ally to women:
Listen up when women discuss sexism in the industry.
Speak up when you see sexism or injustice. Refuse to be a complicit bystander.
Read women writers to redress your own gendered assumptions about books by women.
Recommend women writers to give greater attention to books by women and rebalance public discourse.
Look harder when programming, hiring or publishing to ensure greater diversity.
Hire better and smarter. Don’t let unconscious and implicit biases go unchallenged.
Mentor women and seek ways to support them to gain more experience in their field.
Think twice before you say yes … are you really the right person for the job?
Wait before you jump in. You don’t always have to be the first or only voice being heard.
Put your money where your mouth is and work to redress the wage gap.