Women in Science Fiction

Last night I saw a panel session at Blackwells on the visibility and representation of women in Science Fiction. 

Panel members were Stephanie Saulter, Karen Lord, Naomi Foyle, Jaine Fenn and Janet Edwards, chaired by stalwart critic Edward James. I’m going to defer to the BSFA for the introduction to all of them - check out their post on the event. Suffice to say between them they cover a range of genres, nationalities, ethnicities, educations, disciplines etc. In fact, it’s probably quicker to say the things they do have in common are that they are all women and they’ve all had science fiction novels published.

This is a vast topic, one which inevitably becomes a conversation about the entire publishing ecosystem. So with that in mind, this is an angle on one strand of the session.

Too big to resolve?

Let’s get this one straight right away. Apart from certain high-profile meltdowns none of the panellists were talking about dealing with sexism or personal conflicts. The issues were to do with the broader representation and how, as a market, science fiction tends towards a white male median.

This is why the conversation could have lasted all night. There is no silver bullet here. Much more importantly there isn’t a werewolf to shoot with it. There’s a lot of complex systems and established trends that need to be shifted.

The importance of data

Karen Lord was the one who first raised Strange Horizon’s data-based count of gender representation. She quite rightly said that for any conversation covering national and international markets the first and most important thing to be done is to gather data. You can’t say there’s a representation issue until you actually know what mix of people you’re talking about.

As well as offering clarity on various markets and trends, the summary also includes the observation, ‘Analysis of 2010-2013 gender data confirms that there have been few changes in coverage over this time period.’

Strange Horizons are absolutely right to run this survey. They offer up their methodology, strengths and weaknesses in their analysis and generally try and do it scientifically. It’s the kind of thing that is incredibly useful if you’re trying to have a sensible discussion.

The message? Individual surveys can be ignored, under-valued or dismissed as bias. A wealth of objectively gathered data, however, could be a valuable tool.

So how do we fix it?

Like I said, this is a short post so I won’t even dare suggest that I’ve got all the answers, or indeed properly established the problem, but there are a few things to suggest. First of all, have a good look at your personal habits. Have you got a mix of female and male authors on your bookshelves? If not ask yourself why not. Why not go mad and buy a new book by a woman? Life is about new experience, otherwise you’re doing it wrong.

(Incidentally, if you need any ideas then keep an eye out for the publication date of The Beauty. That’s a bit of a cracker and does all sorts of unexpected things with preconceptions.)

Second, review these books. If you’re one of those people compelled to write (I love all of you, incidentally) then mix it up, make sure you write about books by both women and men and question your habits if you don't. Judge books on their own merit. In fact, write the entire review without mentioning the author’s gender. It’s not really relevant to the work, that’s the point.

Every time you come across a great book by a woman shout about it. And if you come across a great book by a man? Shout about it too!

Third, keep looking. Indie presses are turning out really excellent books just as often as the big players are. Angry Robot, Gollancz et al are great, absolutely, but then Bluemoose hit the shortlist for the 2013 Clarke Award with Nod. Never has there been a better time to find new, mysterious and wonderful things without getting off the sofa. It’d be rude not to take advantage of that, if you ask me.

It’s a make the world you want, kind of deal, basically.