We live in a meritocracy – a merits-based world untainted by biases and personal prejudices.
So when VIDA decided to count the reviews in a number of important literary publications and discovered that male writers were up to 413% more likely to be reviewed than female writers in publications like The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Paris Review, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine and others, we all knew, instinctively, that this could have nothing to do with what some insist on calling ‘unconscious gender bias‘. Sure, male and female writers publish about an equal number of books, but reviewers always review the best books available and the difference in the number of reviews is solely due to the merit of the books in question. (As one commenter noted, VIDA really needs to stop all this pointless counting and teach women how to write properly.)
Let’s look at some facts: It took 109 years to have a female Australian Prime Minister, only 4 women in the US have become Supreme Court justices and no woman has been a US President solely because of lack of merit among women. And it isn’t just in the fields of writing, politics and justice where women lack ability – it took 82 years for a woman to win an Oscar for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker, 2010) and in the UK’s National Gallery, out of 2,300 works, there are only 10 paintings by women because of lack of female artistic talent. Out of 573 listed statues commemorating important people around the UK, 15% are of women, with a large number of those being characters from Greek and Roman mythology, as there are so few real women who have done things. Further, 78% of front-page articles in the UK are written by men and 84% of those quoted or mentioned are male, and during 6 months of election coverage in the US, 81% of quotes about the issue of abortion were made by men because they were more qualified.
The facts are just staring us in the face – the majority of women simply lack merit in their opinions and career endeavours. It is an uncomfortable fact, but there it is. Forget that according the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more women than men aged 20-39 now have university qualifications, the fact remains that women naturally lack ambition and ability. This lack of merit is well documented, yet some people just don’t understand the beautiful meritocracy we live in.
For example, when Professor Eric Schliesser was invited to yet another philosophy conference with no female speakers, he decided he’d had enough. He teamed up with another male philosopher to issue a clarion call to men in the field who ‘through their inaction, complacency, and indifference contribute to the sexist status quo.’ They decided to boycott events where females were excluded. ‘We hereby commit ourselves not to accept invitations to male-only events,’ the pair wrote. Their boycott divided the philosophy community, and accusations of tokenism soon followed. Yet Dr. Schliesser rejected those accusations and characterised as ‘bogus’ the notion that gender equity jeopardizes a conference’s quality because unqualified women will be invited for the sake of it.
‘The tokenism argument is just insane for two reasons,’ Schliesser told The National Post this year. ‘A lot of the men that show up are in their own way tokens — they’re [an organizer’s] friend, they’re your supervisor, there are people that are over the hill, that show up drunk…And number two, there are, in fact, lots of very good female philosophers.”
He is wrong, of course. The first conference in Berlin that he boycotted had 14 male speakers because there were no women who had enough merit to be included. That Professor Eric Schliesser has ‘personally organized 45 successful gender-balanced conferences in five years’ only shows his pitiful lack of understanding of merit.
Those who argue that inequality still exists are ‘drama queens’ (Nicolle Flint, The Age, June 2012). Their claims are ‘playing the ‘woman’ card…hypocritical and unsubstantiated’, even downright ‘damaging to merit-based success’ (Flint again, The Age, Nov 2012). Those who bring up the issue of sexism are ‘playing the gender card‘.
Frankly, it’s privileged whining and Dr Schliesser should know better.
It should be – and further more it always is – about the best person for the job. Conscious or unconscious biases about gender, race, political leanings, religious beliefs and personal friendships and histories don’t enter into it.
Strangely, a paper was published recently in PNAS, examining the results of a randomised double-blind study where half of a group of scientists were given applications with a male name attached, and half were given the exact same application with a female name attached. ‘Results found that the “female” applicants were rated significantly lower than the “males” in competence, hireability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student.‘ The scientists also offered lower starting salaries to the female-named applicants. Apparently the scientists who judged the applications were both male and female, showing – the authors of the study claimed – that a bias against women exists in both genders.
This study was obviously biased. Examining gender bias is an insult to our flawless meritocracy.
I for one wish these so-called scientists and philosophers and politicians and women’s groups would stop all their whinging about equal pay and the ‘sexist’ status quo. Organisations like The Stella Prize should wake up to all this whining they are doing and realise that they are threatening the harmony of our beautiful meritocracy with their questions about bias and their insistence on promoting the writings of women.
If an unconscious bias did exist – and obviously it doesn’t – it would surely be a complex issue affected by a number of things but gender would not, I repeat, NOT be one of them. Suggesting otherwise is just ‘playing the gender card’. (While I am on the subject, who keeps printing those darned gender cards?)
As Cameron Woodhead, a critic for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald laments, ‘The other thing that annoys me about the debate is the shrillness of it… I don’t think that the statistics gathered by the Stella people, which are being gathered specifically for the purpose of setting up a women’s only prize, can be considered conclusive or meaningful…’ (The Nose, June 2012).
Biases, unconscious or otherwise, never affect reviews, awards or by extension, careers. Like philosophers, scientists, politicians and supreme court judges, writers like myself live in a bias-free world.
For example, shortly after the fallout from one of my blog posts managed to inspire the headline ‘TARA MOSS VS THE ARTS CRITIC’ (The Hoopla, Oct 2011) one of my novels was reviewed by the very same arts critic – a man named Cameron Woodhead (see above) who had never previously, to my knowledge, read or reviewed any of my work. Naturally, the review, unflattering though it was, could only be described as unbiased. After 9 novels and 13 years in publishing I have seen many bad reviews of my work, in a number of languages. I know what bad reviews look like. (Mixed reviews and good ones, too, thankfully). That this particular reviewer, Mr Woodhead, spent part of another author’s book review, on the same page, comparing its terrible qualities to my inadequate command of the written word was purely business as usual.
The review came out after a blog post of mine where I foolishly posted some of the aforementioned stats and asked if we were all (men and women alike) perhaps giving some kind of subconscious preference to male writers. And if so, why? Then, in the words of Jane Sullivan at the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Back came a message from [arts critic] Cameron Woodhead: “I don’t mean to rain on your parade but this is the kind of privileged whining that annoys the crap out of me,” he wrote.’
‘Oh-oh. And on he went and on Tara Moss went and on went a whole host of other passionate readers.’ (SMH, Jan 2012.) And ‘…it was on for young and old. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of comments’ (The Stella Prize, Oct 2011) but this ‘blog stoush’ between Cameron Woodhead and myself wasn’t, you know, a thing. (Well, The Age, SMH, Crikey, The Hoopla, The Stella Prize, The Nose, Mamamia, Sisters In Crime, Bookseller and Publisher and various other industry professionals thought it was. Woodhead’s term ‘privileged whining’ was bandied around a bit and the incident even started something called the Australian Women Writers Challenge.) So the same critic was, I’m sure, the most eligible and unbiased reviewer available to review my novel The Spider Goddess a couple of months after the incident. And though his actions were described as ‘trolling antics, sniping back to further comments made by Moss, claiming she had invented things he’d said like a child’ (Crikey, Oct 2011) and he had been ‘raked over the coals after commenting on a blog post by crime writer Tara Moss’ (The Nose, June 2012) he was, I’m sure, again the best and most unbiased critic available at Fairfax to review Assassin this weekend, where he spent approximately half of the available word count discussing a different book.
Perhaps, having never reviewed any of my work before, our rather public disagreement ignited a genuine, unbiased interest in every novel I have published since. After all, only a day after the blog stoush he did tweet: ‘I await your next novel with interest. I mean that.’
He meant it, obviously.
Because we must remember the undeniable fact of our beautiful literary meritocracy. Our total lack of bias in all matters must not be questioned. Suggesting anything else is privileged whining.
* This blog was originally published Nov 11, 2012. Here are some reactions:
‘Tara Moss mocks the flawless meritocracy of our society (hint: it’s not a flawless meritocracy)’ – Literarium.
‘This lady knows how to staple zingers to facts in a glorious sandwich of writership’ - Alice Fraser, comedian.
‘Eloquently put’ – Lisa Dempster, director of Melbourne Writers Festival, author of Neon Pilgrim.
‘Moss wrote a satirical blog post sending up the opinions of those who have criticised the creation of a women’s only literary prize…In her post, she adopts the posture of someone who believes a “meritocracy” of literary writing exists, and that this meritocracy explains the low number of reviews in literary journals of books by women which the VIDA count has identified. Her adopted persona is baffled by damning evidence…’ - Australian Women Writers Challenge.
‘Is Tara Moss guilty of ‘privileged whining’ when she raises, again this week, the question of gender balance and bias in literary pages?…Surely an internationally successful writer has the right, and some might say the obligation, to speak out on an issue that affects all writers, male and female. Because if literary reviewing, criticism and award giving were an actual level playing field, being lauded and awarded for writing a great book would be more meaningful, not less.’ – The Hoopla Literary Society.
‘Well said Tara!’ - Eva Cox, AO.
‘Excellent post by Tara Moss on the myth of ‘our beautiful meritocracy’ - Emily Maguire, author of Fishing for Tigers.
‘Persuasive, powerful discourse’ - writer Samantha Josephine.