|When I recently republished my How to Save the World Reading List, several readers commented on how few (four out of eighty, to be precise, including Janine Benyus, pictured at right) women authors were represented. SBPoet asked “what does this mean?” — and I replied I wasn’t sure. Don’t women have good ideas on how to save the world, or am I just not open to them, or do they just not promote them as aggressively? No matter which of these three it is, this is alarming: We can’t afford not to be considering all the good ideas and perspectives on this subject.
So then I began looking at my other lists, to see whether this bias was present in them as well. Here’s what I discovered:
Lists dominated (at least 70%) by male authors:
Lists dominated by neither male nor female authors:
Lists dominated (at least 70%) by female authors:
I asked myself, and my readers, what to make of this:
I just find that most of the books and articles on subjects I care about seem to be written by men, though it is probably something of a cop-out to blame the publishing industry. I think that, at the risk of generalizing, men and women seem to express ideas in different ways and hence may tend to find books written by their own gender easier to understand and relate to (though I’ve discovered that women also tend to favour male authors on many subjects, perhaps because most of the available books on those subjects were written by men, and a majority of blogs focused on these subjects are authored by men). Lakoff frames meet Mars/Venus.
What do you think this means? Am I a chauvinist without realizing it, or is the available, pertinent reading material heavily skewed in favour of male points of view — and if so, why is that so, and what important and different points of view are we (all of us, male and female) missing as a result?
Rebecca Blood, a blogging pioneer who has long championed women’s writing and blogs, writes:
I find that I read many more male bloggers than female. I favor the link-driven blog, and, of the (comparatively) few practitioners that exist, I wonder if they are mostly men? The ones I find – at least the ones who are linking to things I’m interested in – have historically mostly been male. I have been a devoted reader of several women’s blogs which have shut down for various reasons (one woman had a baby – go figure).
I’ve found it hard to find women for the panels I’ve helped organize, too. In each case, the panel was about the Web, or software, and search as I would, it was hard to find women who were blogging on the subject(s). I slogged through many a page of Google results with little success. (On one such panel, I recruited a woman whose legal name, as it turned out, was Dave.)
Recently, searching for panelists for another Web panel, I started paging through A List Apart hoping to find woman writers. I found one. I even looked through the Blogher Blogrolls and Speakers wiki and had no luck finding women who specialized in the topic I was programming.
Now, you could accuse A List Apart of sexism, but knowing the founder as I do, I think that unlikely. And of course unconscious bias often exists in the most rational people (even me). But blogging is self-publishing. Other’s conscious or unconscious bias will affect linking patterns, but not the publishing itself.
I know there are women working on every aspect of Web design and programming. But I’m beginning to wonder if many women just don’t feel comfortable “tooting their own horns”. A woman friend told me of encouraging another woman to post something on her blog, to be told “Oh, I don’t have anything new to say about that.”
I quite honestly don’t see very many male bloggers who exhibit that same reservation.
So, I don’t think there’s any shortage of smart, capable women doing things in the world, but for whatever reason (time, interest, bias, self-effacement) they are harder for me to find online — and these days, that’s where I look.
I think this is sensible and perhaps reassuring, though I’m not quite sure what to make of Rebecca’s acknowledgement of preferring “the link-driven blog”? It seems to me much of the linking we see in males’ blogs replete with blue underlining is largely mutual promotion and mutual admiration (which male bloggers seem much more prone to engage in). And even if what she says is true in technology writing, where men still significantly outnumber women, how do we account for the ‘male dominance’ in blogrolls and A-lists on so many other subjects?
Take a look at this list of suggested Mothers’ Day books from two critics. The authors of the books on the list are all women, but the subject matter of their books doesn’t fit neatly within the taxonomy of subjects that most bloggers use — many of the books are character-based novels or histories of brave women from the past. The one notable exception, Writing to Change the World, by Mary Pipher, is panned by a (male?) Kirkus critic as a “precious, predictable, and unremarkable ‘self-help’ book”, and another critic, from Reed, says “she never met a clichÈ she didn’t like”. Amazon, which doesn’t provide a ‘see inside’ for the book, suggests you pair it up with (or might prefer) Christina Baldwin’s Storycatcher, another book that “shows the power of story to connect life experiences so that we can share them, learn from them, and teach each other.” Sounds promising, but I’ve already read and reviewed two excellent books on similar subjects, Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. Why does the King’s book make my How to Save the World reading list and not Lamott’s? Because King asserts specifically that stories can and do change the world; it’s more ‘political’. Which is the better book? Depends on what you’re looking for. My male bias raises its ugly head again.
Or contrast two other books I love and have recently reviewed, with very similar messages: John Gray’s Straw Dogs and Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Place You Love is Gone. Gray is a philosopher, while Pierson is a storyteller, and the way they present this message is utterly different. I’ve given away a dozen copies of Straw Dogs. Will I be as generous with Pierson’s book? Probably not. Is that just because Straw Dogs made the point first? Probably not. I found Gray’s book shattering, worldview-changing. It just resonated with me at a time I was ready for, and looking for, the message his book makes, the way he made it.
Or consider the popularity of Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers compared to Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, two new books on global warming released almost at the same time. Flannery’s book is around #400 in Amazon rank in the US (#10 in Canada). Kolbert’s is around #900 in Amazon rank in the US (#236 in Canada). Flannery, a scientist, takes a scientific approach to the subject, with lots of data and theory. Kolbert, a journalist, tells “the story behind the headlines”, using interviews with scientists and people living with the effects of global warming now. I bought them both as soon as they came out, they both have similar messages, and they’re both very well written and compelling. But guess which one I liked better?
Women read more than men, and their fiction reading subsidizes and essentially allows most non-fiction (predominantly written by men) to be published. In a comparison of reading habits, the Guardian suggested that women get more “guidance” from reading fiction than men, who get less involved in novels, which they read primarily for “excitement”. The UK Women’s Library has a website called What Women Want, with, perhaps tellingly, these subpage headings: Pleasure, a Voice, Beauty, a Home Life, Security, Independence, Equality. Modest expectations, pragmatic dreams. An honest, comparable list for men would be more ambitious, idealistic, ideological, abstract. Our reading reflects our dreams.
Like most men 20-60, and unlike most women of any age, I now read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. That alone tilts my attention towards male authors and bloggers. But I confess (to my surprise: until I actually went through my library I didn’t realize it) that of the fiction (excluding poetry) I read, 75% of it is also written by men. I don’t read typical “men’s fiction” (I once tried reading a Dan Brown book and found the writing so lame I gave up after ten pages). My favourite writer, as regular readers know, is Frederick Barthelme, but for every Margaret Atwood on my shelves there are three John Updikes, Charles Baxters or Nick Hornbys. I don’t know why. Their characters think like I think. I see and feel myself in their characters the way I rarely connect with the characters of women novelists.
When it comes to music and film, I think we have the big mostly-male ‘entertainment media’ companies to blame for the continuing dominance of men in these areas of writing. I can’t stomach awards shows that lavish prizes, money and recognition on no-talent actors who merely mouth (usually badly) the lines they are given, while the writers are ignored. No wonder 99% of the ever-diminishing output from the Hollywood oligopoly is such crap. As these data show, women are outnumbered more than 8-1 in production and writing of major theatrical releases. The data for TV aren’t much better. We desperately need a new indy film industry run by women to do for film what Lilith Fair and similar projects have done for music. And we also need to get rid of the old boys’ club of film critics: Film critics are overwhelmingly male, clearly biased against the work of women filmmakers, and absolutely obsequious when reviewing (are they getting kickbacks for this?) the pathetic testosterone-crazed products of today’s Hollywood producers.
Because of women’s initiatives, the situation is changing in music: Women artists gave up on the male-dominated music oligopoly twenty years ago, and just started producing their own stuff. It’s now vastly better than the mainstream music fare. But it’s still an uphill struggle against the machine, with radio stations and music TV stations still offering predominantly no-talent formulaic male bands (and don’t even get me started on the nauseating American Idol pap, where singers don’t even have to write their own compositions). It fascinates me that on the video programs where you ‘vote’ for the next video to be played, the music of women singer-songwriters consistently beats its male competition. When will the ‘industry’ catch on?
So I think we are seeing, and will continue to see, a gradual increase in equity, attention and market share for women in all endeavours that stem from creative writing. While men may still prefer creative works written by men, I think women will balance those prejudices, and opportunities for male and female creative writers will ultimately be equal.
When it comes to non-fiction however (and I include non-fiction books, blogs and documentary films in this category) I don’t think we can blame an existing and unresponsive power structure for the inequality, and I suspect this inequality will continue, sustained by several very human, cultural factors:
So I guess I’m acknowledging my prejudices, and not making excuses for my male-dominated library or blogroll. Blame it on my idealism, my short attention span and my frames, rather than on misogyny, however. And I much prefer women teachers/coaches, and conversations with women, at least when I’m paying attention, which I’m at least getting better at.
If we’re really going to save the world, it will probably be women, self-organizing, grassroots, self-improving, talking with each other, patiently, thanklessly, providing context for what needs to be done and hence developing local, practical action ideas by consensus, that will make it happen. Meanwhile most of us men will still be talking at each other, competing and jockeying for attention, writing broad, clever, sometimes best-selling diagnoses and prescriptions — thatdon’t work and don’t tell you what you need to do in the real world.
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Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
How Our Bodies Sense the World
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