Selection Bias

Out here in science fiction land, there been a lot of agitation over the last week concerning gender bias, with the particular focus being Fantasy & Science Fiction, one of the “Big Three” science fiction magazines (the other two being Asimov’s and Analog). The basics of the issue are that it was noted over on SF writer Charles Coleman Finlay’s blog that the number of women published in that particular magazine was low relative to the number of men (between 15 and 20 percent of stories published over the last four years were from women). This created a lot of commentary. Finlay then suggested a “submission bomb,” in which 100 women would simultaneously submit to the magazine; this created a ton of commentary in itself, some of which accuses Finlay basically of being a patronizing prick. And from there topic metastatized all over the place.

I don’t really have an opinion as to whether F&SF has a gender selection bias, or whether “submission bombing” will do any good in correcting that. But since I did guest-edit a science fiction magazine recently, the controversy caused me to go back to look at my own table of contents to see who is in there and in what proportion.

As it turns out, I bought 18 stories/articles for the magazine, seven of which were written or co-written by women. That’s about 39% of the stories. I’ll note anecdotally that this percentage of stories seems to be in line with what I remember being the overall proportion of submissions from women and from men; about 40% were from women and about 60% were from men.

(The actual percentage of xx-generated material in the issue is lower because I wrote a short editor’s note, Bill Schafer wrote a publisher’s introduction, and the book reviewer, who came pre-installed, is a guy. However, in my selection process, that’s the percentage. On the other hand, from the Subterranean submissions I bought a story for my own site, by Nick Mamatas and Eliani Torres, so the number of stories I bought featuring women writers is higher than appears in the magazine. Ultimately, it’s sort of a wash.)

I don’t recall having any intentional selection bias for or against women (or for that matter, for or against men) in any particular round of cuts; I focused primarily on what I thought were good stories, and then later on what stories best fit an overall flow of material — what stories gave the best balance of story topics, writing styles and etc. Despite all the stories having the same overarching theme (science fiction cliches), I wanted the writing of the stories to have a wide range of styles and topics, both to highlight that cliches could have life in them if executed well, and also because having a magazine wherein all the stories sound alike is kind of boring, and I didn’t want this issue to be boring. When the dust cleared, these were the stories that remained.

Having no intentional gender bias in the selection is not the same thing as saying that gender didn’t play a role in the nature of the stories. I can think of stories in the magazine where I suspect the gender of the writer mattered materially for the story’s focus and point of view, and was part of what made the story worth reading. If it mattered more than other aspects of the writer’s personal experience and writing craft is something the individual writers would have to answer, not me. Suffice to say that I was looking at how each story worked as a whole, and then how it worked as part of an entire magazine.

If I had finished my selection process and I had only a couple of stories by women, would I have gone back and tried to find a few more? I suppose I might have, but if I had been happy with the selection of stories I expect I would have stuck with it and just said “these are the stories I thought were the best.” I suspect I might have done the same thing if the situations were reversed. I will say that early in the reading process I had substantially more women-written pieces on my “yes” and “maybe” lists than male-written pieces, and I remember wondering if I was going to find male-written pieces that I liked. As it turned out, this was an artifact of the submission process — I had a one-month submission window, and rather more women submitted earlier in that timeframe, and rather more men submitted later. Whether this was a random occurance or indicative of larger trends in male/female submission protocols I leave to people other than me to winkle through.

While I had no intentional sex-oriented selection bias, I did have one intentional selection bias, which is that I wanted to try, if at all possible, to have the issue debut writers new to the science fiction field. Four of the writers in the magazine are being published in SF for the first time; as it happens two of them are women. There’s also another writer for whom this is the first time she’s published in a North American short story market, and another for whom, while she is immensely well-known in SF circles (and indeed, is a multiple Hugo nominee), this nevertheless marks her first “prozine” sale. Again, this was not an issue of being conscious of, or working from the intention of, striking a blow for women in SF, or for making sure I had a chromosomally ideal proportion of debut authors; I just liked their work and wanted to publish them, and was pleased to be able to give them their various debuts.

This contributor list is reasonably gender balanced, but it’s clear to me that if one wanted to pick apart the contributor list in terms of bias, one easily could. For example, the contributors are almost entirely some strain of white; I’m only aware of one of them being of something other than purely European descent. I couldn’t tell you how many of them are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, so if it were to turn out the magazine has an unusually high (or low) number of queer or bi contributors, I can’t take much credit for that (or blame for it, either). The contributor list is heavily weighted toward North Americans, I know that for sure. I suspect the contributors tend to be more liberal then conservative, but I since I didn’t ask to see voter registration cards, I can’t know for sure. And finally, the list here is almost appallingly homo sapiens-centric (that is, as far as I know).

In the end, there are probably many things this list of contributors has too much of, or not enough of. What I definitely know it has the right amount of is people who write stories I wanted to buy, and that I think other people would want to read. That’s what I saw my job being, and I think I did it well enough. You’ll have to read the magazine for yourself to see if I managed the latter part of it well enough for you.

21 Comments on “Selection Bias”

  1. A related question is whether being a man constitutes a selection bias for male-generated literature; I think the implicit assumption in the original protest-y type movements is yes, along with the conjoined assumption that editors are primarily male, leading to some sort of exclusion field for female SF/F writers.

    I’m not really sure how to check this except to perhaps compare the m/f ratio of acceptances (balanced by the number of submissions) for male vs. female editors. This may itself be nearly meaningless — after all selectors are human and individual, not just stereotypical examples of their gender, whatever that means.

    Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the selection process usually starts with reading the manuscript, not trying to decipher if “By: Pat Tomorrow” is male or female; the days of James Tiptree Jr. being a required moniker appear to be blissfully over.

    If we remove overt sexism, we’re left with the old adage about men and women writing differently and about different topics, with the coupled assumption that men like to read ‘male’ writing and women, ‘female’ writing. This seems so patently false, given the broad appeal of both genders of writers to both genders of readers that I feel the whole thing surely must be baseless…

  2. I think the most interesting piece of information was how low was the proportion of women submitting to F&SF. This originally made me sympathetic to the “submission bomb” idea. I thought that breaking the ice like that might end up as a celebratory thing, after the first flush of irritation or defensiveness or whatever. But now I think a better strategy would be to work on a longer-term project, enlisting women to send stories on a regular baiss, shooting for a 50% submission rate (maybe with an intermediate goal of 40%).

    I agree that personal bias is not the point. Sexiam is not a personal flaw of insufficiently aware people: it is a condition of the environment. The way to change the environment is to change our behavior in it, though.

  3. I guess unless we get the slush stats from the big three, we couldn’t really tell if there was a bias.

    It seems to me that if fewer women are submitting scifi or fantasy to these big three, then the number of selected stories would be lower.

    Since the selection of stories is subjective, it’s tough to nail down gender bias as a cause versus any other possibility.

    Although, it would be neat to see the percentage of accepted stories by men from the slush written by men versus the percentage of accepted stories by women from the slush written by women.

  4. The interpretations of What Charlie Meant seems to come pre-flavoured according to each respondant’s personal bias. Some felt the slushbomb was a fun way to boost the numbers of submissions by women. Some saw it as an attempt on the part of the evil patriarchy to control what women do (NB: I’ve met Charlie: he is NOT the patriarchy).

    So far, the editors themselves seem vaguely in favor: turns out they’ve been looking for more submissions by women. This just might do it.

  5. Yeah, right. I’m *sure* Van Gelder and Adams are sitting around going “let’s continue our diabolical plot to insidiously maintain patriarchy through the medium of SF!” Then they laugh maniacally and twirl their mustaches.

    A more valid statistic would be the total breakdown of the F+SF slush pile by author gender, but undertaking that would border on complete neurosis.

    While he’s at it, why not suggest submission bombing, say, Harlequin Romances? I hit their website, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of the writers and the front page were women. Shocking! Discrimination! Male writers are unrepresented. Unite, and hurl those submission bombs!

  6. As long as the stories selected for publication are the best from those submitted, does the gender of the writer really matter?
    Sure, I think it’d be great if more women got published. But what I really hope for when I click ‘submit order‘ on Amazon is that the book I just paid $15-$25 for isn’t complete crap.

  7. This seems like a huge non-issue to me. If there aren’t enough women being published, then there probably aren’t enough women submitting, everyone seems to admit. And if there aren’t enough women submitting, well, there’s nothing to be done about that by anyone but the female SF/F writers of the world.

  8. yay, jonathan moeller!

    both for the image of gelder twirling his mustache, and for dis-encouraging the (further) neuroses of the people managing the slush pile!

  9. Charlie is totally the patriarchy. He’s what the patriarchy looks like when it’s pwned by a bunch of girls. *g*

    (Charlie is on my Favorite People list. And through his association via the OWW and other organizations, he’s wound up de facto mentor to a group of mostly-female SFF writers. Who treat the poor man about the way a pride of lionesses treats the lion.

    And he’s very, very good about it.)

  10. “the conjoined assumption that editors are primarily male”

    Maybe in SF magazine publishing. In SF&F book publishing, about two-thirds of the full-time, non-assistant editorial positions are held by women.

  11. (In the US, I meant; specifically, nationally-distributed lines. I wasn’t counting “small press”, no matter how outstanding; and I wasn’t counting London-based publishers, either.)

  12. If the last n books I read were all by male authors does that make me sexist? The whole thing is too subjective to get a handle on. To assume a magazine has a selection bias based on a table of contents (tables of content?) count alone is silly. It assumes that stories from women that are just as good (whatever that means) as men are being thrown out because the author is a woman. It is an unanswerable question that looks like it could be figured out if we had more data. Unfortunately, the only data that would solve the problem is the personality of the people picking the stories.

  13. People could spin themselves into a frenzy over just about any group being underrepresented: sexual orientation, race, religion, etc. (Who’s your favorite gay Afro-Hispanic Mormon science fiction author, and why isn’t his work prominent in ‘Azimov?’)

    If attendance at every SF-related event I’ve been to over the last 30 years is any indication, the fact that even a third or more of published SF authors are female shows increasing diversity.

  14. Of course stories by men and women are going to have some difference. Women – by virtue of being women alone – have experienced being part of an othered group in this society. Men – by virtue of being men alone – have not.

    And are people seriously suggesting that there’s some kind of objective “the best” stories? Editors frequently admit they get more “good” stories than they can publish; they sift through to decide what their “best” is.

    I’ll go a step further. In a patriarchal society, the rules governing taste and best are influenced by a privileging of the male over the female.

    Romance is a red herring. As Liz Henry pointed out on one of her blogs (forgive me, I don’t remember which one), romance novels are a huge portion of the novel business. I believe they comprise 60% of the novel market. And yet they are routinely dismissed and ridiculed – much more than science fiction, which has received a certain amount of academic sanction (and other kinds: I was at a mainstream convention yesterday where a mainstream author sat discussing her series on “demon hunting” — while I found it totally frustrating for this to exist in an atmosphere where science fiction would be treated as a dirty term, it does show the extent to which science fictive ideas have permeated the culture). Another genre commanding such a market share would probably quickly become powerful. Romance remains stigmatized because the authors are primarily women.

    Those who are talking about the submission data – yes, it’s true that women are submitting less than men. However, to say that this is the only problem is to deny the idea that women may be reacting to real forces. One can certainly demand of women, on an individual level, that they submit more. But if they are encountering real barriers to publication that men don’t encounter – then it makes sense that more women than men would leave the field.

  15. And certainly ditto for writers of color. And ditto for non-heterosexual writers, who may find it difficult to write about their own experiences in the frank fashion which is accessible to heterosexual writers — didn’t a bunch of subscribers complain about the most recent story in F&SF that contained homosexuality? Of course that’s going to influence what editors feel safe publishing, and what writers feel safe writing.

  16. Rachel:

    “Romance remains stigmatized because the authors are primarily women.”

    I would be more willing to accept that Romance novels are stigmatized because the audience is primarily women than what you state. And that is only because it points more to the content of the novel than to the gender of the author. If we are talking about the same Romance novels; usually a couple of racks of them at the grocery store, long haired guy with poofy shirt on the cover, basically soft core pornography for bored women, then they should be stigmatized because they aren’t very good. At least the ones I’ve read. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those “women” authors weren’t men anyway.

    If you are talking about a more literate version of the above which involves engaging, interesting stories that truely explore and embrace Romance instead of just repackaging the same cut-and-paste lust then I apologize.

  17. Hi Kero,

    Nope, talking about cut-and-paste lust here. But you’re right, the stigma comes because the audience is women.

    There’s a huge audience for this stuff. Someone thinks it’s good. Yet it is completely dismissed as trash. Hell, *I* think it’s trash.

    But with such a devoted audience, it should be powerful trash. Most action novels are sh*t. (Hell, I’d argue most novels in general – from epic fantasy to literary odes are sh*t.) They aren’t treated with the same disdain.

  18. Sadly, there are also “Man Harlequins” – equally crappy and thrown-together C&P garbage, but for bored old men instead.
    See: “Longarm” and “Gunsmith” series, and anything by Richard Marcinko.
    The earlier question about whether many series romance authors are actually women, makes me laugh… it’s a question that came up once at my store amongst some very bored staff members!
    Two things are very true about both genres: They stink, without exception; and they SELL, like plywood before a hurricane. I doubt we’ll ever live to see the genre die out.

  19. If anyone had asked me to guess (without looking at representative TOC pages) which of the leading three American SF magazine had the highest percentage of female authors, I probably would have guessed F&SF. So much for assumptions.

    This topic made me check my Amazon orders for the past five months — 34 books — 28 of them fiction. The fiction books include five books purchased for someone else, so that leaves 23 purchased for me (although I expect my daughter will also read them all). There are six books by male authors: Buettner, Turtledove (two books), Pulman, Crane, and some guy named Scalzi. There are seventeen books by female authors: Karen Travis, Patricia Briggs, Robin Hobbs (nine books), Elizabeth Bear (three books) and Naomi Kritzer (three books).

    I guess I may be in trouble with the gender police for not purchasing my proper quota of male authors.

  20. You know, I asked a similar question about 20 years in connection to so-called minorities. How come so few African-American SF writers? I asked a couple of black writers I knew–a poet who taught a writing class (and said he taught SF) and, later, Chip Delany.

    The poet made the excuse that SF didn’t really interest a lot of black authors because it was (a) traditionally a white genre and (b) seemed disconnected from what “actually mattered.” Chip used a historical model, that Science had in the past had a Whites Only label on the door, and therefore SF, tangenetially, held no attraction.

    That seems to be changing now, obviously.

    But it seems to me that “percentage of female” SF writers is an issue long dead when you look at the novels published since, say, 1973 to today. Short fiction may be a different aesthetic question unrelated to a gender issue.

    But I will note that Gordon, when he took over F & SF, made a point of asking for more Science Fiction as opposed to Fantasy, feeling that F & SF had gone too far in one direction.

    There are too many factors to draw one-dimensional, meaningful conclusions.

  21. Some more numbers for the audiences edification. Now Escape Pod isn’t in the same league as F&SF (yet) but only 31% of submissions to Escape Pod are from female authors. 20% of those are from 8 authors.