On International Women’s Day yesterday I took part in a panel at The Carrington in Katoomba to discuss The Stella Prize, women’s writing and the latest statistics on the representation of female authors in the literary world. It was a standing room only event, and the many attendees – some of whom came from as far as Sydney and Mudgee – offered great questions of the panel.

Chair for the session, author of The Legacy Kirsten Tranter talked about the importance of the Stella prize, for which she is a co-founder, and about how literary awards change the careers of writers who would otherwise go unnoticed. The Stella, if you are unaware of it, will be a new fiction prize for women. It is named for author Stella ‘Miles’ Franklin. The Miles Franklin award remains a highly coveted literary prize in Australia, as you may know, and it has copped criticism for its poor representation of female authors. (Only 13 times has a woman won the Miles Franklin since it was started in 1957 and last year’s short-list, for instance, was all-male.) Stella, I believe, would like this new women’s prize named in her honour.

Fellow panellist Claire Corbett, who has just been short-listed for the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Prize for When We Have Wings, talked about the importance of expanding our reading habits, as a culture. In particular she talked about how men should read more fiction (stats show men tend to read non-fiction more often than fiction) to improve on their ‘interior lives’ and ’emotional vocabulary’, and how the lasting stories tended to be the classic novels. She also urged women to start reading and writing speculative fiction so they are part of the dialogue about ‘the future’.
Panellist Elizabeth Lhuede talked about the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge, and how the online discussion of books differs from the traditional literary publications. Online, readers are apparently much more balanced in expressing their love of books by women and by men. She also mentioned some of the stats on libraries in Aus, explaining that thriller author Mary Higgins Clark was being borrowed at a high rate at one particular Qld library, though the rest of the top five borrowed books were by male authors with first names beginning with J – Jeffrey Deaver, James Patterson, Jeffrey Archer…

We also talked briefly about a previous blog of mine, and the fallout . Kirsten Tranter called the accusation of ‘privileged whining’ levelled at me for my blog reporting on the VIDA gender bias stats a ‘rallying cry’ for a lot of women authors sick of being dismissed for bringing up this ongoing issue of underrepresentation.

So, how do readers find out about novels? Word of mouth is one great tool, but it often takes a good review or literary award to get that discussion going, and this is where statistics tell us that although about equal numbers of women and men are published (yay!), women are vastly underrepresented in awards and reviews. In Australia, for instance, 70% of the authors reviewed in the Weekend Australian in 2011 were male, and of the authors reviewed in the now defunct Australian Literary Review in 2011, 81% were male. Likewise, the Fin Review featured 79% male authors. These depressing stats are also reflected in major overseas publications like London Review of Books (504 males to only 117 female writers), The New York Review of Books (627 men to only 143 women) etc. Thankfully, here at home The Daily Telegraph has reviewed about equal numbers of male and female authors, as have the West Australian, Sunday Age and other Sunday newspapers.

There were some fantastic questions from the audience last night, including one about whether gender bias was also a problem for non-fiction books. The VIDA count and the stats on gender published recently at BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER are for all authors reviewed (and in the VIDA stats, also gender of the writers doing the reviewing), so the stats remain the same in fiction and non-fiction, though in my genre of crime fiction when it comes to the annual Ned Kelly award, which has only ever given its main award, Best Fiction, to a woman once in 16 years (Gabrielle Lord in 2002), female authors have nonetheless been awarded on occassion in the true crime category. Just as the gender issues with the Miles Franklin gave birth to the Stella Prize, the lack of recognition of women writers in the Ned Kelly gave birth to the women-only Davitt award, named for Ellen Davitt, author of the first Australian mystery novel.

Most now agree that an unconscious bias against writing by women exists. (How could anyone disagree in the face of those depressing VIDA stats and pie charts?) But why? And what can we do about it?

Over to you…