Unpacking the data on women’s submission(s)

I was reading Damien G. Walters’ column on the “invisibility” of women in science fiction, and he brought up Julie Crisp’s explanation for the comparative lack of women publishing science fiction, from an editor’s perspective. Crisp works for Tor’s UK branch, and summed up the lack in this way:

You can see that when it comes to science fiction only 22% of the submissions we received were from female writers. That’s a relatively small number when you look at how many women are writing in the other areas, especially YA. I’ve often wondered if there are fewer women writing in areas such as science fiction because they have turned their attentions to other sub-genres but even still, the number of men submitting to us in total outweighs the women by more than 2:1.

You should go read the whole post if you haven’t already, because there’s a nifty table and everything. There’s also quite a spirited discussion in the comments.

Weirdly, my own comment never made it in. Back when the post was new, I stayed up late writing and re-writing it, so I checked back a couple of times to see whether it was still in moderation or not. Eventually I forgot about it, but I remembered to check again when Walters linked to it. Nope. Still not there. So I thought I’d share it here, because I re-wrote it so many times that I actually had drafts of the fucking thing that I’d emailed to myself. Without further ado:

I’d also like to add the wonderful Sandra Kasturi of ChiZine Publications to the list of female editors who rock.

However, just because you’re not sexist doesn’t mean that other editors aren’t. And just because an editor is a woman doesn’t mean that she’s incapable of gender bias. Internalized misogyny is a real thing, and it has a real impact on behaviour. That includes the assumption that a female writer of SF will sell fewer titles than a male writer in the same genre, and is therefore less deserving of investment.

It’s good to shed light on these statistics, but as you point out, the question is more complicated than just submission and acquisition. Why is the number of women submitting SF manuscripts so low? My guess is that the answer to that question is similar to the answer to why the number of women in STEM fields is low: there’s a culture in place to discourage them from trying. From the “Fake Geek Girl” phenomenon to the need for meaningful anti-harassment policies at conventions, it’s no wonder that joining the ranks of successful YA and UF writers in a female-dominated niche looks more attractive to a larger number of women. How many grand visions of the future have we lost because a new writer shook her head in disgust and decided to try a proven market that appeared more welcoming, instead?

I don’t think anybody’s asking editors to read women’s writing with more forgiving eyes. At least, I’ve never heard that complaint. What I do hear complaints of is treatment of women that makes them feel unwelcome — and yes, that includes the way some editors treat women (Jim Frenkel, for example). So, you happen to be doing your personal best. That’s great! But don’t blame women for staying out of what is statistically a field that’s unkind to them. They’re just playing the same odds that some editors are.

I say this as a science fiction writer who just released her second novel last week. I’m a working SF writer who also produces foresight scenarios for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, and SciFutures. I love my jobs and the people I work with, including my editors at Angry Robot. They’re great guys who have always made me feel welcome. But just because I had the time, energy, and support to wade through the bullshit doesn’t mean I didn’t smell it on my way in. And I sure as hell don’t fault my fellow women for going a different way to avoid it.

Was that last bit a tad self-aggrandizing? Yeah. Maybe that was why it never went through. Oops. Sorry. I was still on the high of releasing my second book. Mea culpa. But I think my larger point still stands: this is a community issue, not just a publishing issue, but that doesn’t mean publishing has no role to play.

Crisp published her post just as Jim Frenkel at Tor US was being shown the door in connection with the accusation of sexually harassing a writer. Editors help create the culture of conventions. They’re the ones everybody sucks up to. They hold the power. It’s true that they can’t buy the manuscripts they don’t see, but they can help de-toxify a culture. Firing people who bring shame to their organizations is a great start. They can also take a stand for covers that don’t objectify women, for example. Or advocate for better, clearer policies regarding harassment at conventions. There are plenty of other opportunities and strategies for change:

Maybe publishing is so worried about the end of its business model that it can’t figure out how to increase and diversify its talent pool. But in so doing, it’s also missing out on an opportunity increase and diversify its customer segments. Different writers mean a different audience, and in the end it’s all about the audience. Are those other companies really more creative than the patrons of creativity? Christ, I hope not. This is the imagination business. We’re supposed to be pushing the limits of the possible, here. If publishers want to do more about the dearth of female voices in their talent pool — do something more than simultaneously wash and wring their hands, that is — then what’s needed isn’t just analysis, but innovation.

2 thoughts on “Unpacking the data on women’s submission(s)”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I have a review site that reviews traditionally published and self-published authors. The majority of my submissions are from women–I’m unsurprised that most are self-published. I’m just starting an advice feature on the site based off of classic literary fiction in order to help self-pub. authors w/ their writing. The site will have a future micro-publishing component I’ll run that publishes socio-political sci fi. (SP sci fi is my favorite type of lit. since I was a teen.) It will be very small (a few books a year), so that we can work on old school developmental editing w/ authors. I think that will be a great benefit to women in the genre, & as a woman, I think I will be more open to the types of subjects women may explore in their sci fi, as it seems the traditional establishment is not quite so open at the present time. BTW, I was about to review “iD” for the site, but found it entrenched in yet another “Christians suck” storyline I’ve grown tired of (my personal beef in sci fi. & our art culture–it just bores me, nothing new)…I think I would’ve liked it very much otherwise. Perhaps next book? I’m very much looking forward to anything else you write.

    1. Thanks for your comment! And good luck with that feature!

      Regarding your feelings on iD, I should probably tell you that I was raised Catholic, and attended a Jesuit university. I’m well-versed in what good Christianity looks like. Reverend Mitch Powell isn’t a good Christian. He’s a selfish, brutal, immature excuse for a man who found meaning in an organization that used him for its own ends, much as it used its congregation for money. Jonah LeMarque isn’t a good Christian. He’s a psychopath who capitalized on an under-utilized market niche. But I don’t think these people are representative of all Christians. I just think they’re the next step in the Pat Robertson/Jim Bakker/Creflo Dollar evolution. I’ve attended storefront non-denomination Christian churches. I understand the appeal. But, given the fact that my parish priest once held a post as a confessor to pedophile priests sequestered at a monastery, I understand the danger of any organization that refuses to deal with sexual molestation as a systemic issue.

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