THE BLOG

Women Writers Are Getting a Raw Deal

25/04/2014 17:29 BST | Updated 25/06/2014 10:59 BST

Last year I wrote an article about the cultural myths around what writers earn and I included a statistic that drew more attention than the rest of the information in the article put together. That statistic was that female writers earn averagely only 77.5% of what their male counterparts earn. That's taking into account the bestselling efforts of the likes of JK Rowling. I'm an historical novelist and given that over 80% of fiction is bought by women I found that statistic particularly surprising.

Despite decades of equal opportunities legislation women still don't have equal pay in many professions. There is an ongoing and outraged debate at the BBC about equal airtime for female employees and the latent sexism in how they are presented. One of my personal heroines is journalist, Kate Adie, who speaks passionately about this subject in the long tradition of the militant British lady - she takes no prisoners.

The BBC statistics form a bridge between the wider world of work and my own creative field covering many of the same issues that are relevant in my own industry. Women writers don't only receive substantially lower advances than men, they also receive less coverage by way of reviews and fewer prizes and nominations for prizes. Some of the world's most prestigious literary publications are unfairly skewed in their coverage when you look at what they produce in gender terms. In 2013 for example The London Review of Books posted reviews for books written by only 72 female authors as opposed to 245 male ones. The New Yorker came in slightly behind this: 253 female to 555 male and the Times Literary Supplement (with far more male reviewers than female as it happens) also fared poorly in the equality stakes with male 903 and female 313.

In reply to the publication of these statistics, Peter Stothard editor of the TLS said he was "only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books" and continued "while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the TLS".

Feeling outraged yet? You're not alone.

As Lesley McDowell a writer and critic points out 'There's a tendency to elevate novels about war above novels about the domestic sphere, and women tend still to write more about the latter. It doesn't make their novels any less serious or important, but they are perceived to be less so.' McDowell long ago decided to prioritise reviewing women's fiction in response. She is in the minority.

The underlying issues behind the kind of judgements that Stothard makes are legion. I spoke recently to a friend who had written a novel that perched on the cusp between literary and commercial fiction. She's a fine writer. When discussions were underway at her publishers about what cover should grace her book, she was very aware that her gender, as the author, substantially changed the way the editorial team made that decision. She was not pleased with the result but she didn't seem able to budge their perception that softer images would better represent the book even though it also included more traditional male-oriented themes. Defeated after several meetings, she definitely felt that things simply would have been different if she was a male writer rather than a female one.

So everyday are these issues that many female writers probably don't even notice when it happens to them. It seems to me that the bias is so deeply ingrained in the legion of decisions that surround our careers, that it is all but invisible.

One of the positive advances about the digital revolution in publishing is the way it has opened up the curation of our literary culture beyond the mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle class majority so it can more closely represent the interests and preferences of real readers. It seems to me that anything that challenges the traditional model, which at base, smacks of men telling women what they ought to like, is a good thing.

Women have been fighting these battles within the publishing industry for a long time. When Kate Mosse set up the Orange Prize in 1994 (now The Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction) it was revolutionary. Since then there have been an array of prizes and movements worldwide to try to address the imbalance and an army of female statisticians who produce figures they hope will prove their case and promote change. The recently founded Stella prize in Australia, set up in part by Jenny Niven, Creative Scotland's new Portfolio Manager for Literature, Publishing and Languages is a case in point. These kind of prizes are controversial. It is argued that women's work ought to be taken on merit alone rather than being given a hand up by excluding men. But then, given the ingrained bias, it stands to reason that a proportion of the men currently in rather better positions than their female counterparts are where they are because of their gender. The only other explanation is that men are simply better writers than women - and I, for one, am not buying that story.