The Hugo and Gender Controversy, A Year Later

When people discovered only one work of fiction by a woman was on the 2007 Hugo ballot lightning rent the blogosphere. Writers seeing this as a denial of women’s contribution to sf voiced surprise, disappointment and anger. Some of them decided to work for change, creating websites with information about works by women published in 2007, in hopes of making them more competitive for awards. Then came the backlash from bloggers defending the makeup of the Hugo ballot, or arguing that it wasn’t symptomatic of any problem that needed to be solved. The debate made sf fandom’s corner of the web crackle with electicity.

The 2008 Hugo ballot came out in March: it listed four works of fiction by women. A few people immediately predicted that last year’s controversy would repeat itself. Patrick Shepherd, who in 2007 essentially argued that sf is more nearly gender-blind than it once was, sighed:

Once again, there are no women represented in [the Best Novel] category, although there are several in the other categories. There will probably be some more flack about this, which I believe is really irrelevant…. Of far more importance is just what the quality level is of those that are nominated.

And John Scalzi, author of a 2008 Best Novel nominee, said he expected to see criticism “that none of the authors of the books nominated are women.”

Yet the blogosphere remained tranquil.

In fact, K. Tempest Bradford, Non-Fiction Editor for Dark Fantasy, who also started the SF Bookswap and often blogs about power and privilege issues that affect the sf field, said in her opinion piece titled “And the Phallic Symbol Goes To…” —

Denvention posted this year’s Hugo nominees a few days ago, and much rejoicing was heard across the land. I’m happy to see that there wasn’t a repeat of last year’s ovary-free fiction categories, though there are still fewer women than I’d like. Just means I’ll have to work harder for next year!

Bradford seemed to feel that the increase in women nominees, from one to four, represented a satisfying reward for the work she and others had invested in putting out the word about fiction by women.

What accounts for the change since last year?

Some of the explanations I thought of included:

  1. The calm has less to do with the issue and more to do with how the blogosphere works – something that ignites a brushfire of comment can use up the topic, even in the case of an issue people care about.

  2. The number of women nominees isn’t, in itself, a significant issue, it was just an opportunity to draw attention to women’s or feminists’ concerns. People will move on to a fresh issue.

  3. The number of nominees matters, and moving the needle from one to four is satisfying progress. Or,

  4. The quality of the works nominated is the main thing, and some people have in hindsight decided last year’s controversy took away from that focus, but they still hope more women get nominated.

I asked Adrienne Martini, Evelyn Leeper and Nancy Kress, all women who are very familiar with the sf field and these issues, why the heated discussion did not resume where it left off.

I began with Adrienne Martini because her column for Bookslut was the most interesting and pungent thing I read about last year’s controversy. Actually, I was incensed when I first read it. As I realized later, that was the first clue that I would feel compelled to give the question serious thought. (After all, I was also incensed when Harlan Ellison used the 1978 Worldcon to agitate for the Equal Rights Amendment, but I ended as a convert to the idea.) I sent her an e-mail outlining these ideas and asking for comment.

Adrienne Martini responded:

Pungent — I like that. For me the whole episode itself was rather pungent. FWIW – my initial Bookslut post was borne out of anger, not necessarily because of the Hugo noms that year. Until the list of nominees made it startlingly apparent that nothing had changed, it did feel like women in the SF/F field had gained some momentum. Not just the old reliables — the women that men point to to say “look, we have some” — but doors for all female writers in the field felt more open. Then it slammed shut, rather abruptly.

In hindsight, I would have said that differently than I did and wouldn’t have taken it out on Eifelheim. But I don’t regret the anger, which did seem to touch off a number of discussions, most of which were worth having.

I’m not certain there is just one explanation for why it’s so quiet this year. I do lean toward the first two. Plus, I don’t think that year-to-year comparisons shake out useful data. What will be interesting is to see what happens in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Evelyn Leeper knows sf, is well versed in the history of the Worldcon and its Hugo Awards, and has been up for the award herself a dozen times in the Best Fan Writer category. Evelyn said this about my four suggestions:

The calm has less to do with the issue and more to do with the way the blogosphere works – something ignites a brushfire of comment that uses up the topic, even in the case of an issue people care about.

Could be, although if Usenet is any indication, there is never a topic so dead that a brushfire can’t be lit in it.

The number of women nominees isn’t, in itself, a significant issue, it was just an opportunity to draw attention to women’s or feminists’ concerns. People will move on to a fresh issue.

This definitely seems the case to me.

The number of nominees matters, and moving the needle from one to four is satisfying progress

Not really. That is, I don’t think the number matters that much. One needs to look at what percentage of SF writers (not the population at large) are female, etc. That is, if only 10% of the writers are female, then you can’t complain that they aren’t 50% of the nominees.

And 20 authors out of the entire set of authors is such a small figure that it is not statistically significant.

For 1992, 12 of the 23 fiction nominees were by women. Does anyone ever talk about that? Did we reach some sort of high point then?

The quality of the works nominated is the main thing, and some people have in hindsight decided last year’s controversy took away from that focus, but they still hope to see more women get nominated.

If I had to choose one answer, it would be this one (though frankly, the gender, or race, or religion of the nominees is pretty low on my list of concerns for the Hugos).

When Rowling won the Hugo, no one seemed to be thrilled a woman had won. There was more concern that a fantasy had won.

The people who are complaining — can they list works by women that better than what made the ballot? I have found that if you have a panel on “The Top Ten [X],” people will criticize the list and say, “Well, what about such-and-such.” To which the answer is, “Okay, but which work will you take off the list to make room for it?” It’s not enough to say, “There were lots of good works by women,” one needs to be able to point to works better than what is on the list, and indicate what should be removed.

Now, of course, the nominations are all subjective, so this should be easy, but while people will occasionally list things to be added, no one ever seems to do the other half.

And people don’t seem to complain that not enough “people of color” are nominated. Why the focus on gender?

Nancy Kress’ 1993 speech on “Women in American Science Fiction,” a horizon-expanding exploration of the sf genre’s history, brought me a lot closer to understanding the grievances behind last year’s Hugo and gender controversy, as I wrote in File770 #150, pages 15-17. Here’s what she answered:

Nancy Kress: I don’t know why there aren’t more women on the Hugo ballot this year. If you read my 1993 speech, you saw that women SFWA members win awards (Hugos and Nebulas combined) in roughly the same numbers as their membership. Here are the updated figures, from the 2007 SFWA Directory:

Male names: 58%
Female Names: 35%
Other: 7% (These people are unknown to me personally and are using initials, have unisex names like “Pat” or “Terry,” or have non-English names which I don’t know the usual gender for).

From 1977-2007:

Female Hugo winners: 35
Male Hugo winners: 93

Female Nebula winners: 57
Male Nebula winners: 70

So women are under-represented for Hugos and over-represented for Nebulas. Why? I have absolutely no idea.

While Kress doesn’t claim to know the answer, her statistics do help answer one of Evelyn Leeper’s queries about the proportion of male and female pro writers. (Kress also posted these figures on her blog. Mike Flynn added some comments that also are worth reading.)

In the final analysis, why wasn’t there a replay of last year’s Hugo controversy?

Reason Number One: No mana. Larry Niven’s story “The Magic Goes Away” postulates that magic works until the local supply of mana is exhausted. The Hugos were thoroughly worked over last year. Bloggers like to be read, and repeating the exact same arguments that were made a year ago is not the way to get an audience.

Reason Number Two: If a person literally was only concerned about getting more women nominated for the Hugo, he or she may have been satisfied by the progress represented by there being four fiction nominees by women instead of one.

For others whose complaints about the Hugos were linked to the larger inquiry about whether women have equal access to succeed as sf/fantasy writers, the Hugo Awards are just one set of data among many that can be mined for statistics to support a feminist critique.

As people are aware, the validity of statistics depends on the size of the sample. For example, prozine editors have bought and published hundreds of stories over the past 15 years. Something is shown by comparing the percentage of stories by men and women these editors have selected over that timespan, as Feminist SF – the Blog recently did.

But I really feel that Sheila Williams [editor of Asimov’s] should get more notice (perhaps even accolades) for doing exactly what all of us who are annoyed by gender imbalance have asked other editors to do. (And let me point out again: we have not asked them to publish stories JUST because they were written by women, or to not publish stories JUST because they were written by men.)

(Tip of the hat to  SF Signal.)

Another post on the Feminist SF blog using proportional representation as the hook, 17.948%: Best of Best New SF, challenged Gardner Dozois’ The Best of the Best New SF on grounds that only 7 of its 39 stories were by women.

When someone uses a statistic to level criticism at very small sample, like the Hugo ballot or Dozois’ selection of top stories from the last 20 years, I think it’s fair to expect them to anticpiate Evelyn’s question, “Okay, but which work will you take off the list to make room for it?” Or the question I’m most interested in, “What work do you want to add?”

The bare number 17.948% doesn’t carry the argument. Would anyone read a murder mystery that only dealt in the probability of there being a victim? I want to know whose story was unjustly left out. Tell me about the good stuff I am missing. There are a lot of good stories published every year, and when I add the critics’ lists to the Hugo ballot or Gardner Dozois’ list, it gets easier to find them all.

Update 5/12/2008: Fine-tuned the lead-in to K. Tempest Bradford’s quote.

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15 thoughts on “The Hugo and Gender Controversy, A Year Later

  1. Statistically, the sample size for any one year of Hugos or Nebulas is just too small to make any definitive statements about whether women are over or under represented in the award selections. Even looking at them on a decade basis gives you a just barely significant number, and there are a couple of critical pieces of information missing, namely the proportion of women vs men who are actively writing and the total volume of output of these writers sorted by gender. On top of this, the selection of the best writing is, at least supposedly, not a random process, but a selection based at least partially on objective criteria about what makes great fiction, not to mention what gender bias might be creeping in because of the percentage of voters who are of a particular gender.

    Looked at from a very long term perspective, it can easily be argued that there was some definite gender-based discrimination within the field for a long time, that even the feminist revolution of the seventies did not fully correct for this, and it could logically be surmised, given our overall cultural bias against women in almost any field, that a certain amount of this still exists.

    However, Evelyn’s question about what other works should have been nominated and what you’d remove to make room for them is very relevant. Were there works published last year by women that are better than those that did make the nomination list? My very personal answer to that is yes: I felt that Emma Bull’s Territory should have made the list, and I’d have to subtract Ian MacDonald’s Brazyl. But wait, I have another book I felt should have made the list: Ferrari’s The Book of Joby, perhaps instead of Stross’s Halting State. Now what does this say? Mainly that individual opinions vary; it’s the total consensus of all who had input into the selection process that counts, and for this year, at least, women authors didn’t make it, and neither did some promising male newcomers.

  2. “not to mention what gender bias might be creeping in because of the percentage of voters who are of a particular gender.”

    Ah, the voters.

    As has been noted elsewhere and many times, the number of people who do not exercise their vote is high.

    For instance, with Denvention 3 there were 382 ballots cast in the novel category.

    PR 2 lists 2675 members (Dec 16, 2007) – contained the Hugo ballot
    PR 3 lists 3299 members (March 28,2008) – contains the final Hugo ballot

    A whole lot of people not voting.

  3. ahem, you may want to note that I’m not actually a feminist. therefore, any cries of me trying to draw attention to feminist concerns is rather silly.

    Now you know! and knowing is half the battle.

  4. Thanks for the correction, Tempest. Let me know if you think something will work better than my second attempt. There’s good reason to take an interest in your views about the 2008 Hugo ballot — you started SFbookswap, and I thought that was one of the most constructive responses to last year’s controversy. All the more so because it involved action, not only discussion.

  5. Np problem.

    And just in case you were wondering, I don’t actually think any of the four reasons you gave are the reason behind the “quiet” on the blogosphere around this issue. Firstly because the blogosphere hasn’t exactly been quiet about it. The general conversation about gender in SF continued throughout the year and still continues today. So it’s not as if I or others, even feminists, have exactly let this thing go. Just because there isn’t an uproar doesn’t mean no one is paying attention.

    It annoys me that every time someone brings this issue up, there are always a ton of someones throwing up their hands and crying in exasperation “OMG are we talking about THIS again?!”, yet when there is no furor there’s a whole other crowd throwing up their hands and saying “Well! I guess it was just people looking for something to shout about.” It begins to feel as if one can’t win.

    The truth of the matter is that after last year people had a lot of varying reactions. Some wrote the Hugos off completely. not just women, either. Something I keep bringing up that hardly anyone else seems to is that there was maybe ONE person of color on the ballot last year and maybe not even that this year. A lot of people see the Hugos as a lost cause, looking at the kind of people who nominate and vote and considering what it takes to participate. (Not everyone can afford that non-attending membership. and honestly, I can think of a ton of better things I can do with $50.)

    Other people took a long view of things. What would it take to raise awareness about gender parity and possibly bring that about? There’s a lot of activism that’s gone on, not just the Bookswap, though I’m glad you think it’s a good idea. There’s also the FSFWiki and the FSFBlog and other awards and the panels and conversations happening at conventions and in blogs, though not in such a major blow-uppy way. How many blogs written by female SF fans, neo-pro writers, small press publishers/editors do you read? If I had to assume, I would say none, because if you did you wouldn’t have written this post the way you did.

    The idea that people cared more about beating a drum than the actual issue at hand is more than a little insulting. And though I appreciate being quoted like an expert, you’re basically taking ONLY what I had to say about this issue as the whole of it. I’m not the only one blogging, I’m not the only one at the forefront of this conversation.

    perhaps instead of choosing these three women, smart though they may be, you should have chosen women who have been involved in the ongoing conversation to ask why it is that the blogosphere didn’t explode as expected.

  6. Tempest: Thanks for adding these thoughtful comments. I just started this blog in January (a late adopter…), however, one of the things I’ve done as a long-time newzine editor is to systematically follow-up stories to see how they play out. I reported the 2007 gender-and-Hugo controversy, so when the 2008 ballot came out I wondered what the reaction would be. I used Google to cast a wide net: when I did that in 2007 it was easy to find a lot of blog entries about the gender-and-Hugo controversy. This year there were not many posts addressing the same issue, and a few of them were nothing more than predictions that the controversy would be renewed. Your post was the most substantive I found on-point, and was mildly positive even in the face of there being “still fewer women than I’d like.” I couldn’t resist such reasonableness. Too, finding a contrast between the dire predictions and the less intense criticism of the Hugos on this issue, your quote appealed to me as a counterbalance to help introduce my search for an explanation.

    You asked, “How many blogs written by female SF fans, neo-pro writers, small press publishers/editors do you read? If I had to assume, I would say none, because if you did you wouldn’t have written this post the way you did.”

    Right after last year’s controversy I started keeping up with half a dozen of them on a regular basis. Including Feminist SF blog and SFbookswap. That’s more than zero, but as there are dozens and dozens of bloggers who fall into those categories I’d agree there’s much more for me to learn about the field. I’d also agree that getting other viewpoints is indispensable to learning why the blogosphere works as it does, or understanding dissatisfaction about the Hugo Awards for any given reason.

    I knew the names of women involved in the ongoing conversation you refer to. I visualized making the e-mail equivalent of cold calls to them asking for comments. Everyone realizes it’s a very short step on the internet from inquiring about a controversy to fomenting a controversy, and I did not think I could overcome the natural skepticism of people who had never heard of me before.

    Instead, it made sense to me to choose women I could say something genuine to about why I was asking their opinion. Adrienne Martini and Nancy Kress influenced what I wrote about the controversy last year, which had the advantage that they could find my article online and decide whether I would make trustworthy use of their comments. And I could be confident that whatever they’d have to say about gender and the Hugo Awards would be well-grounded, whether or not they could explain what makes the blogosphere explode…. Then, it was the intersection with the Hugo Awards that led me into this discussion, so Evelyn was another natural choice because she knows the sf field thoroughly and has written about Worldcons and the Hugos more often than most.

    I would definitely agree that it isn’t worth $50 to vote for the Hugos, though where I’m coming from is that there is a community of people who enjoy the Worldcon, attend it when they can, and still want to participate in the community when they can’t attend, getting the publications, and voting for the Hugos and site selection. That’s what makes the $50 worth spending on a Worldcon supporting membership for them. If anybody thinks voting for the Hugos is by itself worth $50, they’re welcome to include themselves in the mix, but I’m very sympathetic to those who say it’s not. Membership is a different concept than a simple charge for voting on the awards.

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  8. Speaking as someone who had a long discussion about the 2007 Hugo nominees on my LJ, my response to this year’s list was a weary acknowledgement that four is better than one, but still not fabulous.

    As Tempest said, I think you’re failing to comprehend the way the ripples work in the blogosphere on these sorts of issues. It’s hard to predict what’s going to spark a big discussion and what will fade away almost unremarked. And 2007 was so in your face on the gender disparity, while four out of twenty isn’t, frankly, so outrageous as to piss me off. Women are *used* to being under-represented, and we have to pick our battles.

    Also, like Tempest said, there’s certainly a lot of discussion about the representation of POC in SF pro circles. That Ms. Leeper doesn’t see that kind of discussion happening doesn’t mean it’s not.

  9. Thanks for your encouragement, my goal is to get a better understanding and I’ll keep working at it.

    An extreme disparity of the sort that occurred in last year’s Hugos is a great opening to renew awareness about how many women are committed to writing and participating in the sf genre, something that seems to need doing from time to time in spite of how that number has grown, as Jeanne Gomoll famously protested in her 1987 article, “An Open Letter to Joanna Russ.”

    How much of the year-to-year fluctuaton in Hugo nominees written by women would you attribute to general acceptance of women writers, or how much is indicative of how good a year that leading writers like Connie Willis, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold and Nancy Kress etc. have had?

  10. I’m the blogger who cited the figure of 17.948. Yes, it was kind of a short post: in effect, on a feminist blog, I was adding one brief note to a feminist discussion that’s been going on for a lot longer.

    Joanna Russ noted in 1983 (in How to Suppress Women’s Writing) that the proportion of women writers included in anthologies or journals, regardless what subject or area, remains fairly consistent at 5%: and, as consistently, if a slightly greater proportion are used – and this does not have to be much greater, say 10% instead of 5% – complaints start coming in that women are receiving an “unfair share”. (Similar research by Dale Spender demonstrated that when a group is about 50/50 women and men, women will be perceived as “dominating” the group: if women talk for more than a third of the time, they will be perceived as “dominating” the conversation.)

    Since then – that is, for the past two decades – one of the things I have routinely, quickly done whenever picking up an anthology or looking at some list of “significant books” or “big name writers”, is to check what proportion of those names are female, and to consider (if I’m familiar with the genre or the era) which obvious names have been omitted.

    And as I’m an SF reader since 1981, quite a lot of those quick checks were of SF anthologies – and while the proportion of women included has been creeping up, it seems to remain always below the proportion of stories getting published, which in turn does not appear to ever yet hit 50% on a gender balance.

    Under Gardner Dubois, as TABW noted in a recent post on FeministSF, Asimov’s published from 19-30% female writers each year (data from 1997-2003). Under Sheila Williams, Asimov’s have published 27-41%.

    It’s true that numbers don’t say everything. It’s also true that a single figure won’t tell much. But for me, that 17.948% figure wasn’t a single figure: it was one item in a whole mass of data.

    Another item, which is much more subjective: I knew all but one of the names of the women writers whom Dubois included in the “cream of the cream”: and in fact, I recognised the story titles in most cases (and disagreed with the choices – I thought the writers had published finer stories than the ones Dubois selected, but ho hum). With the male writers Dubois chose, I wasn’t familiar with the names or the story titles to that degree.

    Which suggests to me that Dubois had two separate filters, for male and female writers, whether he was aware of it or not: and the women who got included were indeed the best of the best of the best, the ones Dubois knew he could not disinclude. The male writers, I think were just selected from among the best of the best. I think this, because many editors do seem to have that filter: a woman must be among the very very best to be included in the anthology of the finest, but a man need not be of the same calibre to be included. The sign of it is exactly that disproportion: the best and the finest women, and more of a mixed selection of men.

    And no, I haven’t bought the anthology: my income for buying books new is not such that I really feel the need to buy a book where it seems the editor wasn’t really trying too hard to include the very best: no editor who uses the double filter system can be said to be trying that hard. It’ll get to my local library one of these days.

  11. To Yonmei : Who is this Gardner Dubois you write about? Perhaps Gardner Dozois?

  12. Okay, the percentage thing is a leitmotif. And since you’ve been reading SF since 1981, of course you’ve been watching the field long enough to have witnessed Gardner Dozois’ entire tenure as editor of Asimov’s. I’m surprised it didn’t make more of an impression on you.

    It’s taken me a couple of days to find the time to make this count and here’s what I learned.

    While Dozois was editing Asimov’s, it published 176 stories that were nominated for the Hugo, 53 of them by women.

    Some of those years were astonishing. In 1988, Asimov’s had 11 nominees, 4 by women. In 1990 it had 11 nominees, 6 by women. In 1992 it had 13 nominees, 7 by women. In 1993 it had 9 nominees, 7 by women. In 1996 it had 12 nominees, 4 by women. (*)

    I have a hard time concluding from this evidence that Gardner Dozois is anything except delighted by the opportunity to publish good SF written by women.

    When I don’t like his choices for any given “best of” list, I know it’s because we have somewhat different preferences.

    For example, Dozois has a recommended reading list posted at the SFWA website, A person can count how many men and how many women have recommended work. For novels – 72 writers, 7 women. For short stories – 123 writers, 19 women.

    Does that really define where he’s coming from? The selections include 4 novels by Joanna Russ and 5 novels by Kate Wilhelm. That’s not a typical male reader’s list. On the other hand, zero work by Anne McCaffrey is recommended. Then, Dozois explains that the list cuts off in the early 1980s, which may or may not explain the omission of Lois McMaster Bujold — according to the index at SFSIte, Dozois has never included a story by her in his year’s best collections, for whatever reason.

    (*) Of course, I can’t really tell who bought the stories at the very beginning of Dozois’ tenure. Short fiction always spends some time in the pipeline before publication. Likewise, the moment Dozois left in 2004 Asimov’s didn’t instantly begin filling its issues with Sheila Williams’ inventory. So the data from the very beginning and end are somewhat arbitrary. But Dozois’ record is such that knocking one or two award years off the front end wouldn’t dim it in the least.

  13. I have a hard time concluding from this evidence that Gardner Dozois is anything except delighted by the opportunity to publish good SF written by women.

    Or that Gardner Dozois turns down stories by women unless they’re so good their quality overcomes his gender filter.

  14. Thanks for the link to the reading list: I haven’t had a chance to study it in depth, though it looks like it might provoke another blogpost, but the most unbelievable omission is Katherine MacLean – I cannot conceive a respectable reason why Duzois doesn’t think it’s worth recommending her – while I’m surprised to see none of Tanith Lee’s novels on the list – not Silver Metal Lover, not Drinking Sapphire Wine.

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