My last book, HUNGRY GHOSTS, was shortlisted this year for the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. I didn’t know it had been nominated, so I was pretty excited when I found out, until someone pointed out I was the only woman on the shortlist. Five nominees. Four men. One woman.
My background was in human rights and Aboriginal law; I used to sit on the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, so I’m pretty conscious of systemic discrimination.And let me explain what that means: it doesn’t have to be intentional or deliberate, it can often be well-intentioned. But it’s evident when results that should be consistent with demographics aren’t.
For example, there are a higher proportion of Aboriginal people in prison than there should be based on relative numbers. Some wrongly argue that means more Aboriginal people commit crimes, but the studies instead point to a system rooted in deeply held and often unconscious stereotypes within the judicial system.
So, when it comes to writing, if we assume that women and men write books of equal quality– in other words, that men are not inherently better writers than women– we should see parity in awards. From year to year, quality can vary, but over time, prizes should be awarded in roughly equal numbers. If they are not, then we have to assume there is systemic bias at play.
Overall, for this year’s awards, there were 23 men and 13 women nominated in seven categories. In five of the seven categories (I’ve excluded the category for Best Unpublished Manuscript, where entries should be anonomyized in a fair process, which we can’t do with published books), men won the awards. Five out of seven.
My friend and fellow author, Wayne Arthurson, pointed out on Facebook that when it comes to Best Crime Novel, there have been years when the shortlist was entirely male. I hadn’t noticed, so I thought I would check into it. I’ve gone back to 2009, since that’s as far as I can find the shortlists for Best Novel, but I have no reason to think there’d be much difference before then, given these results. And they point to a systemic problem.
|BEST CRIME NOVEL
(Year refers to year of publication. The award is announced the following spring.)
|Women shortlisted||Men shortlisted||Gender of winner|
Of the 35 people shortlisted for Best Novel between 2009 and 2015, 27 were men, eight were women. Only one woman won and that was super star, Louise Penny, which means the bar has been set very high indeed, for women in this competition.
How widespread is the problem of gender inequality? Well, I saw a picture on Facebook yesterday of the mystery panel at Prose in the Park, a new literary festival in Ottawa. There were five panelists: four men, one woman. I’m sure the organizers never even thought about it, but that’s the problem with systemic discrimination. No one notices, because they assume it’s okay for there to be more men than women on a crime writers panel. Or that it’s okay for there to be more male than female police officers. Or fire fighters. Or Cabinet ministers. Or judges.
I’ve decided that from now on, I’m not going to sit on a panel at any writers’ festivals where an attempt has not been made at gender parity.We have a problem; we need to fix it. It starts with us.
NOTE: In an earlier version of this post, I had indicated one woman and four men were shortlisted for Best Novel for books published in 2014. Past CWC President Melodie Campbell indicates that the Arthur Elllis award shortlist for Best novel that year actually had three women and two men on it. A male author won that year anyway. I’ve corrected the table and contents accordingly.
Finally, in the anonymized process attached to judging entries for The Unhanged Arthur Ellis for Best Unpublished Manuscript (judges aren’t given names and don’t know the gender of the writers), fellow writer Jayne Barnard checked and says that seven women and three men have won in the ten years since the award was created.Which kind of says it all.