Gender Bias in Canadian Crime Writing Awards

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 In five of the  seven categories (I’ve excluded the category for Best Unpublished Manuscript, where entries should be anonomyized in a fair process, which we can’t do with published books), men won the awards.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.


(Year refers to  year of publication. The award is announced the following spring.)

Women shortlisted Men shortlisted Gender of winner
2015 1 4 M
2014 2 3 M
2013 0 5 M
2012 1 4 M
2011 1 4 W
2010 1 4 M
2009 1 4 M


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 a local 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.





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14 Responses to Gender Bias in Canadian Crime Writing Awards

  1. Peggy, one of the things I remember hearing recently to do with films (I believe this came from Geena Davis’s org : if a crowd scene contains 37% women, male viewers think there are more women than men in a scene. Which could explain why in some superhero movies, two females with five males seems to satisfy the audience. Drives me nuts.
    Thanks for this post!


    • Peggy Blair says:

      I’m sure that’s the case. I’m no longer prepared to be the token female in anything; plan to call this out from now on whenever I see it. Thanks for the support!


  2. Peggy, I’ve just realized the 2015 results posted above need a correction. There were 3 women and 2 men shortlisted (I think it was Barbara Fradkin, Brenda Chapman and Maureen Jennings.) I’ll check on the website to make sure.


  3. Peggy Blair says:

    You’re right; three women were shortlisted for the awards announced in 2015 for books published in 2014. But one of the men won anyway, despite that strong showing.
    Brenda Chapman, Cold Mourning (Dundurn Press)
    Barbara Fradkin, None So Blind (Dundurn Press)
    C.C. Humphreys, Plague (Doubleday Canada)
    Maureen Jennings, No Known Grave (McClelland & Stewart)
    Alen Mattich, Killing Pilgrim (House of Anansi)


  4. Nancy Reid says:

    This is a fascinating analysis. And when I think of all the wonderful female authors, some of whom you have named in your article, it is surely a CRIME that they do not receive the recognition they deserve!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting post, Peggy. Thanks for sharing. As you know, Sisters in Crime, has pointed out the disparity when it comes to book reviews for years. It’s discouraging to hear that things haven’t changed nearly enough.


  6. Ruth Seeley says:

    I sense a new joke pending: how are women like birch trees? They’re so distinctive you tend to overestimate their quantity. I can hear you not laughing now. Just as no one should be laughing in 2016 at the fact that this nonsense still occurs. Having been shown a Facebook memory photo of the female-predominant mystery panel I took at Prose in the Park in 2015, I might initially have said the same thing the organizer did. But your argument has convinced me on the enough, already front.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      Well, I understand the good intentions, I just don’t that’s the way to fix this problem which goes far beyond that one festival or that one panel (see my previous post where I point out that in the past 9 years, only one woman has won the Best Crime Novel Award, but that when entries are anonymized, 70% won for Best Unpublished Manuscript over that same period.)


  7. Ursula Rudden says:

    I noticed the same thing at Prose in the Park. And I personally know some very good candidates. I was randomly guessing that maybe their publishing date did not fit into the right time slot, but that is speculation, and I have no idea if that could be true. You have a point!!

    Liked by 1 person

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