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Writing Out Gender Bias

11/09/2015 15:34 BST | Updated 10/09/2016 10:12 BST

The Nine Worlds Multi Genre Convention arrived in London at the beginning of August and I had been invited to speak on two panels. Being a huge science fiction and fantasy enthusiast and writer, I was delighted to attend. Nine Worlds is proof that you don't have to be a nerd or fan to enjoy science fiction, fantasy and gaming. Personally I don't like to use the term 'fan' as it implies that anyone who follows a TV show or a band is a nut job. We're generally not.

Where Nine Worlds shines is in the quality and content of its panel discussions. Lively and relaxed debates take place on a varied array of subjects including race and culture, social gaming, fan fiction, geek feminism, storytelling and more. In short there is something for everyone.

But it was when I wondered into a discussion about gender bias in fiction that my mind was blown.

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In Conversation with Naomi Alderman: unlearning bias and creating better fiction

I had already completed my panel discussion for that day and had circled the other talks I wanted to attend in my programme. I had nearly completed the 2nd draft of a novel I'd been working on and was in the mood to absorb any information and tips that might help. This talk about identifying and tackling internalised bias in your process and within yourself sounded right up my street.

I wondered into the conference room and sat down in the front row looking forward to receiving advice and tips from an award winning author. That was when I noticed that I was the only guy in the room. I looked around and behind and was greeted by a sea of smiling happy female faces. I shrugged and figured that perhaps some guys would come in later (I counted 3 including me at the end). The moderator Sian Fever introduced Naomi Alderman and for the next hour we were all treated to some of the most insightful and thought provoking comments from a woman who cheerfully described herself as "a fat Jewish lady who sometimes sleeps with women". She was funny, intelligent and delightful to listen to. But it was when she spoke about her own bias in creating characters that things got really interesting.

Naomi is a strong positive advocate for feminism. She's not one of those people who chant "Men bad! Women good!" She is an impassioned cheerleader for equality. But even she admitted to having to unlearn gender bias in her own story telling. She believes that without even realising it, the first thing she and many other writers think about when creating new characters is 'White male'. Even when we might go back and change a character the initial starting point is 'White male'. Feel free to challenge Naomi on this, but I found it tough to. I began looking at some of my favourite books and stories spanning decades of my life. Guess what? About 80% of the characters were white male.

What is going on?

I thought we all lived in a modern society where things like gender and racial bias if not completely eliminated, were rapidly becoming a thing of the past in the west. It seems not. The fact that Naomi admitted to doing it herself gave me a little relief. However it just shows that even in the world of storytelling there is a way to go in encouraging people to write and to read about strong female characters and people from a variety of backgrounds.

Gender & Racial Bias Exist Within us all

That was the 'eureka!' moment for me. Listening to intelligent successful women telling us that everyone - themselves included - has some form of bias when it comes to gender and race in (and out of) fiction, made me sigh in frustration. It also made me quite fearful for no reason. I was sitting in a room surrounded by women. I even raised my hand at one point and said in a small voice "I'm a white male!" terrified I would be kicked out or taunted. Uncomfortable is the only adjective I can think of that explains how I felt. I remember thinking "Jeez! Is this how it feels to be a woman in a male dominated arena?"

I was left with the impression that the 'white male' stereotype is something that we should try and rail against in fiction. Well, I'm white male. I'd like to think I'm not a stereotype. In the book I've gotten to 2nd draft stage, 70% of the characters are female and the main leads are all women (I must be ahead of the curve). Yet as a male, statistically speaking I have more chance of having my work accepted and reviewed by various publications and media than a woman does. That's a damning indictment of our culture.

I know that we need to overcome internalised bias in fiction, but I began to be afraid that I would be a victim of the rally. The logical reasoned part of my brain tells me that this is nonsense. But the irrational inner critic in my ear was whispering: "You see? You shouldn't even try! You're on a hiding to nothing! These women are coming to get you!" But they weren't coming to get me. Naomi and her fellow panellists were merely trying to get us to realise that whether we notice it or not, we are all biased in some way. And the first step in overcoming our bias is in recognising it, accepting it and then challenging it.

The only sure fire way Naomi has found to ensure she has an equal gender split in her characters, is in counting how many women and how many men she has written. It sounds ridiculously plain, but it's something that all fiction writers need to try.

It's a shame I was only 1 of 3 blokes in the room who heard her speak that day.