Though the Brontë sisters are among the most celebrated writers of the 19th century, their lives were not exactly easy. In their era, women were expected to tend to the home and families, not to write, so they decided to submit a volume of poetry as Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell—which they published with their own money. In a foreward for a new edition of Emily's Wuthering Heights, published in 1850, Charlotte comes clean about the sisters' true identities. "We did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine'—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice," she wrote.
It's been 167 years since Charlotte identified this "prejudice," yet men still wield a disproportionate amount of power. Recent analyses have found that women are less likely to be published in top tier literary outlets, or to have their work reviewed, especially by men. Now, results from a new analysis support the Bronte sisters' hunch: Women are less likely to receive reviews when writing about topics that aren't deemed "feminine."
A team of five undergraduate researchers at McGill University analyzed over 10,000 reviews in the New York Times Book Review, tracking metrics including the gender of authors whose books were reviewed, the gender of review writers, the reviewed book's genre and themes, and the most frequently appearing words in reviews. The researchers, all women, are "ardently feminist," says Rosie Long Decter, a team member who just graduated from McGill with a degree in cultural and political studies.
Eva Portelance, a linguistics major who contributed her computational analysis skills to the project, says a major aim of the research was to quantify the problem. "I wanted to figure out whether or not this problem was real or something that we just felt was there," she says. "If a computer says there's a problem, then usually there is."
The researchers found that two-thirds of reviewed books were written by men, and that reviewed books tended to reflect gender stereotypes, an effect the researchers call topic bias. "It's a phenomenon where women are more likely to get reviewed if they're writing about traditionally feminine topics—and the same goes for men with traditionally masculine topics," Decter says.
"We have an idea that men writing about factual information is going to be more valid or more legitimate than a woman's take."
Just as the Bronte sisters' work was often seen as unladylike—Jane Eyre railed against traditional gender roles, while Wuthering Heights included family drama and betrayal—authors today appear to be penalized for veering from gendered topics. According to the McGill analysis, women's books that get reviewed tend to be fiction with themes of romance, gender, and family, whereas reviewed books by men tend to be non-fiction, focused on traditionally masculine topics like war and sports, or scholarly topics like science and economics.
These results may reflect the way we see men's and women's strengths, Portelance says. "We consider experts in many fields to be male rather than female." Women, on the other hand, create fictional worlds or write about relationships.
Judith Scholes, who oversaw the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts' 2015 count on gender representation, says she's not surprised by the McGill researchers' findings; the CWILA found that 59 percent of reviewed non-fiction books were by male authors.
"We have an idea that men writing about factual information is going to be more valid or more legitimate than a woman's take," she says, whereas, for women, "the kinds of topics that are being reviewed and the choices that are being made for the reviewing of books is maybe in line with stereotypical feminine or feminized topics." These biases reinforce harmful stereotypes for women and men by restricting for both genders: Just as women may be less likely to receive a review when writing on non-fiction topics, men's personal narratives or memoirs may be ignored.
Decter and Portelance's team has now set to work on potential solutions. Their research project has evolved into an advocacy group called Just Review; on their site, they've made their data available, along with explanations of their results. "Raising awareness is first step," Decter says. Their goal, she says, is to reach all stakeholders—editors, authors, writers—and motivate them to create change.
They've also created tools to help publications and book reviewers track and address bias. In their survey of 29 publications, two-thirds of editors said they valued diversity in their pages, yet only half were actively keeping track of their representation stats. To address that gap, Just Review created a downloadable Google spreadsheet that keeps track of reviewed books, along with a few of the metrics the researchers looked at: the gender of reviewed books' authors, and the major themes in each reviewed book. The file is formatted so that users automatically see graphs and statistical analyses of their records as they input their data.
"[The tracker] allows [editors] to see the numbers and to be aware not just of how many women are being reviewed, but of what topics those women are getting reviewed about," Decter says. "In having that breakdown readily available to them, they'll be able to look at it and say, 'Oh, we didn't publish any reviews of women writing non-fiction last year—that's a problem.'"
The Just Review team is hopeful that generating more data showing unequal representation will motivate publications to improve. "Once you have data, you can hold publications accountable," says Ariane Schang, a team member and computer science major who worked on data analysis. "You can really point to it, and it shows they have a problem." Generally, publications want to avoid being in the spotlight for poor representation, and that can motivate action, even if their first steps aren't perfect.
Scholes says that the CWILA researchers have noticed a "CWILA effect": "The more we called [publications] out, and the more we put them on our infographic, the better they were the next year," she says. "Public exposure definitely has something to do with it." For example, in 2011, 67 percent of the National Post's reviews were of male authors, and 76 percent of its reviewers were male. Scholes says the Post's editor was proactive and sought out women's books to review, so that, by 2014, those numbers were down to 51 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
But even with tools to help editors, there are other barriers to achieving equity. One is that even editors who care about equity can still exhibit unconscious bias. "Some editors believe they're putting quality above all else, and don't consider the identity of the author," Decter says. "But that's often how your biases creep in, and how women and people of color get left out." Just Review recommends editors proactively seek out books and reviews from underrepresented groups. "It makes for a strong publication, covering authors with a wider range of perspectives," Decter says.
And, of course, the root causes of inequality go much deeper than editorial decisions. Authors' identities inevitably shape the way readers and reviewers read their work. For instance, even when men and women write about the same topics or themes, their work may be seen differently. "A man can write about family and his writing is seen as an intellectual thinking about what family means, construction of family and the ideas. For women, it means that she is writing domestic dramas located close to the home and the hearth," says Lorraine Berry, who has written about sexism in the literary world. Author Jennifer Weiner makes a similar point in a 2010 HuffPost interview: "I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that, when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book—in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."
Such biases creep into other levels of publishing as well. Agents and book editors' decisions about which clients to take or books to publish affect the overall pool of work to be reviewed; publishers control how those books are marketed, from what themes advertisements may play up to the book's cover design.
"Critics, even queer women critics like me who really try to not let such prejudice get in the way, most definitely tend to take certain books less seriously."
All these little decisions add up. "If a cover conveys some kind of mood that appears fluffy, I may not take as long to read the book's description," admits Ilana Masad, a critic and fiction writer who has written on the marketing of women's books. "So critics, even queer women critics like me who really try to not let such prejudice get in the way, most definitely tend to take certain books less seriously."
Scholes emphasizes the need to consider what books children are reading, boys especially. She points to CWILA data that shows that, while women are equally likely to review books by men and women, men are more likely to review books by other men. "It's the men who are not reviewing women," Scholes says. "So I'm interested in figuring out how to get beyond the bias that women's books are not interesting to men or boys." A curriculum that includes women's authoritative non-fiction or men's personal narratives could send the subtle message that gender doesn't constrain which topics a writer can tackle.
Since many of its founding team members recently graduated, Just Review will continue its work with a new team of undergraduates. "Something we'd like to do is to make the project more intersectional moving forward," Decter says, "and to look at how this issue of topic bias affects not just women, but also look specifically at how it affects trans folks, how it affects women of color, and queer women."
The founding team will stay on board in an advisory capacity, and they acknowledge that its current method of representing authors' gender—as a binary, either man or woman—is "a serious problem," according to Schang. "The nature of data is so binary, and it's been a frustration for us." Portelance adds that, in the Bias Tracker tool on their site, they added a non-binary option in the gender field.
The Just Review team knows that just one project can't solve a systemic issue. "It's a tough project. There's not just one solution, to do this and the whole thing will be fixed," Decter says. But the group believes in the power of honing in on topic bias, and finding solutions to it. "When you have such a big, overwhelming issue, like the male domination of an entire field, it can feel kind of hard to tackle that," Decter says. "I feel great being able to work on this piece of the issue."
Lead Photo: The New York Times office in New York. (Photo: wsifrancis/Flickr)