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Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction

PART OF THE International Women ISSUE

‘The predominance of male writers in mass-market SF & Fantasy can have a further influence on gender representation.’

In this illuminating article Juliet E McKenna casts a critical eye over the genres of science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) to determine how writers are represented, and consequently positioned, within them. Confronted with a sometimes startling lack of diversity within these genres, McKenna aims to highlight and promote understanding of these issues so that her findings bring about tangible change.

Extract from Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction
Edited by Francesca T Barbini
Published by Luna Press Publishing

Excerpt below from Juliet E McKenna’s ‘The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and Other Obstacles in Science Fiction & Fantasy’

It was initially assumed that increased female entry into careers such as law, medicine and higher education would naturally result in more equal representation at the higher levels over time. This has been proven not to be the case. We now see women writers and those from other under- represented racial and LGBT populations entering the SF & Fantasy genres in increasing numbers. Indeed, women have been writing in these genres since they first appeared. However, lists of bestsellers and of authors with long-term and sustained writing careers are still dominated by men. Let us consider what evidence from relevant research in other disciplines might apply to the issue of diversity in genre publishing, and see what factors might be specific to SF & Fantasy.

Studies of gender and other representation in the workplace have generated a specific jargon among human resources managers and other interested groups. For those in the SF&F world, these terms can seem equally applicable to a fantasy adventure quest.

The Gatekeeper

The first challenge is getting past the Gatekeepers. Are women and people of colour being deliberately excluded? The demonstrable persistence of such overt discrimination in the industry has demanded legislation to counter it, after all.

When looking for evidence of Gatekeepers in SF&F, it is immediately apparent that women are now well represented at the highest levels of genre publishing, as commissioning editors and editorial directors in both the UK and the US. This is not to say women cannot be misogynist or subject to other prejudices but the numbers of new books from different groups being promoted for 2017 would argue against gross, systemic bias at this entry stage. Barnes & Noble’s list of 96 titles recommended by SF and Fantasy editors (Cunningham, 2017) has 48 titles by authors readily identifiable as men, compared to the rest. The Verge website’s article (Liptak, 2017) on 33 SF and fantasy titles ‘that everyone will be talking about in 2017’ offers 18 titles by self-evidently male authors.

There is certainly no evidence that women are somehow inferior writers, compared to men. In recent years, female authors have been well-represented in both nominations and wins for all the major SF & Fantasy prizes. Between 2011 and 2015, four women won the Arthur C Clarke Award (ACCA, 2016) Women dominated the 2013 Nebula Awards (SFWA, 2013).
There is similarly no evidence that readers will naturally or inevitably discriminate on the grounds of gender. Short story competitions where judges see submissions stripped of author names and other identifying data consistently produce gender balanced shortlists. This has been my own experience as a judge for a Book Club Associates competition, the James White Short Story Award and the Deddington Literary Festival. Even where authors can be identified, provided readers focus on the content above all else, gender balance follows. Epic fantasy author and best-seller Mark Lawrence has run ‘The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off’ for the past two years, in which ten review websites assess the books submitted. In 2016, the 10 finalists were 5 male and 5 female authors, from an overall field of 300 books, of which 49% were submitted by men (Lawrence, 2016).

However this does not mean that participation is consistently equal. The Strange Horizons website’s SF Count (Cosh, 2016) has measured participation by looking at the gender balance of male versus female authors as recorded by Locus magazine’s ‘Books Received’ listings. In their 2015 report, looking at author gender in 2014, “this year’s proportion of books by women/non-binary individuals is the lowest recorded in the SF Count to date, both overall (39.9%) and in the US (42.0%) and UK (31.3%).” So are there Gatekeepers at work?

Genre editors, male and female alike, insist they would publish more women if they had more submissions from them. This mirrors findings in academic publishing when under-representation of women in journals has been examined (West, Jacquet, King, Correll and Bergstrom, 2013). Research across a range of disciplines has found that women consistently hold themselves and their work to a higher standard than male colleagues, with the result that they are far more reluctant to put their work forward for publication (Correll, 2004). Since this persistent problem is rooted in cultural issues, there is no reason to suppose that SF&F writers are somehow immune. Indeed, creative writing tutors consistently report an excess of confidence among male students compared to an excess of diffidence among women writers at the pre-publication stage.

Successive studies have also shown that academic papers of equal quality are more likely to be accepted from male authors than from women. We certainly need to consider this possibility in relation to fiction and when considering the role of literary agents. In 2015 Catherine Nichols began sending out the same novel to agents, male and female, under a male pseudonym as well as in her own name (Nichols, 2015). “Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

Is this indicative of overt discrimination or a more subtle problem? Where under-representation in other fields has been examined, the Halo Effect has become apparent. In personnel management, this signifies the unconscious inclination of recruiters to favour those candidates who are most like them. This has long been identified as a key cause of ‘male and pale’ predominance in the upper echelons of the civil service, the judiciary, Parliament and the City of London, to name but a few. Conversely, the Horns Effect hampers candidates with significantly different backgrounds to key decision makers, where unconsciously negative assumptions are made.

How could this be relevant to SF & Fantasy? Well, the Horns Effect can certainly be seen at work in Hollywood, where ‘everybody knows’ that female-led superhero movies lack box-office appeal. The commercial and critical failure of films like Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) is cited as indisputable evidence, solely on the basis of having a female lead, whenever any Wonder Woman movie is mooted (we can only hope that the recent successes of Rogue One, The Force Awakens and the all-female Ghostbusters will change this perception). Conversely, the lacklustre performance of Daredevil (2003) or Green Lantern (2011) apparently has no bearing on the ongoing multi-film projects from Marvel and DC. A broad range of explanations has been found for those particular films underperforming which have little or nothing to do with the lead star’s gender.

In terms of books, we should consider the predominance of male authors on bestseller lists and remember that publishing is first and foremost the business of selling books in an increasingly challenging retail climate. Authors consistently report rejections from agents, male and female, citing their book as lacking ‘breakout’ potential. The possibility of unconscious bias must be acknowledged, if ‘everybody knows’ SF & Fantasy written by men is more likely to sell – because that’s what everybody sees selling best. This particular Halo Effect may well influence publishing decisions, especially now that marketing departments have at least as much say as editorial in some publishing companies. Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that female authors are encouraged by agents and editors alike, to consider writing Young Adult fiction far more frequently than their male colleagues, on the basis of established female bestsellers in that field.

This predominance of male writers in mass-market SF & Fantasy can have a further, subtle influence on gender representation. Role models matter, at the entry level and throughout women’s careers in every area where gender imbalance has been studied. Their presence is key to encouraging and increasing participation. When considering the likelihood of unconscious bias in SF & Fantasy publishing both in terms of women limiting themselves, we should return to the gender balance statistics cited so far.

The Barnes & Noble’s list of 96 titles cited earlier has 48 titles by authors readily identifiable as men but 31 by self-evidently female authors alongside 10 where gender is obscured by unfamiliar or gender neutral names, or initials. The Verge article offers 18 titles by identifiably male authors alongside 14 by women and 4 gender-neutral writers. The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016 received 300 books, of which 49% were submitted by visibly male writers, 33% by female writers and 18% gender neutral. In 2016, the 10 finalists were 4 self-evidently male and 2 self-evidently female authors, alongside 4 gender neutral through the use of initials.

So while male participation is apparent at around the 50% mark, visible female participation drops to between 30 – 40 %. Even if this gender-neutral category was actually all women writers that still means hopeful writers have fewer obviously female role models. In fact, closer examination, particularly of unfamiliar names, demonstrates that this gender neutral category invariably includes men. So male participation is in fact higher than that gender-balanced 50% or so seen at first glance.

‘Best of’ lists and articles surveying the history of Science Fiction and Fantasy persistently focus on male writers, excluding women’s contribution to the development of the genre. Where women are cited, we frequently see the same, very few, names repeated, and discussion of books often published decades ago, giving the impression that women are not currently active in a particular area. This arguably contributes to instances of agents and editors unconsciously ascribing as yet unproven potential to male authors.

Examples from magazines and the Internet are too numerous to cite. This problem was epitomised by the BBC’s recent documentary series ‘Paperback Heroes’ (Marr, 2016) which broadcast a programme on Epic Fantasy on 24th October 2016. The programme featured discussion of the work of seven major writers who were six men and one, perhaps two, women if we include the very passing reference to J K Rowling. The woman whose work was discussed in some depth? Ursula Le Guin, and the book was A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968.

Four male writers were interviewed and one woman who was interviewed solely in the context of fantasy for children. Of all the writers included, adding in cover shots or single-sentence name checks, eleven men featured, compared to six women. Of those women, three got no more than a name check and one got no more than a screenshot of a single book.

All these featured and interviewed writers are deservedly popular, irrespective of genre, their books widely read, and their work is illustrative of points well worth making about fantasy. But those same points could have been made just as effectively while featuring a more gender-balanced selection of writers, from the genre’s origins to the present day. Doing so would have offered new writers a far more representative range of role models, encouraging them to try their chances with an agent or an editor.


Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction by various contributors is out now published by Luna Press Publishing priced £17.99. The book is a response to a Call for Papers and it explores how society, as reflected in real life, literature, movies, TV, games and cosplay, is currently dealing with gender identity and sexuality in speculative fiction, asking an important question: do we have a problem?

Juliet E McKenna’s article (above) was shortlisted for the 2017 British Science Fiction Awards.

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