Jan 15, 2012

The Stella’s - condescension, tokenism and quotas


I’ll preface this post with a disclaimer; a lot of what I say here has been written already, possibly more eloquently and definitely more notably by women. It’s hoped that by throwing my hat in the ring that I add mass to the momentum, rather than it being perceived as “mansplaining”.

A Good Summary

I read A woman's place by Jane Sullivan in yesterday’s age.  It’s a good piece that summarises the debate on gender bias in literature, in Australia.  Once I got passed the irksome opinions of V. S. Naipaul1,  I settled in for what turned out to be a good summary of the discussion.

Thankfully, sensible debate, as far as I can see, does not descend to the blatant sexism evident in Naipaul’s opinions. There is, however, some remarkable resistance from both men and women to a suggestion that something should be done about the issue of gender bias.2

I was a little dismayed at reading Jennifer Byrnes quoted comments in Sullivan’s article.  I respect Byrnes and I am a fan of her show.  She is quoted as saying:

that the Stella Prize made her feel  uncomfortable: "I don't think women need to be condescended to in that way.'' On the Miles Franklin criticisms: "I don't know what the point is people are trying to make. Is it an accusation of bias against the judges? Are you saying women are constantly being overlooked? Maybe that was just the opinion on the night.''

There’s a couple of things to draw out here.  My criticisms here are less a direct criticism of Jennifer Byrne and more of the sentiment she expresses.


I can see why a woman might find a female only prize condescending.  It could be perceived as –“well your‘re not really good enough to compete against the boys but here’s a prize and a nice condescending pat on your sweet little head”.  That point of view would hold water if there were a level playing field, if literature was judged purely on merit alone(if you think it is or you’re any sort of literature judge that does, read on).

Recent references to Prize lists, publishing schedules, review outlets demonstrate skewing toward male writers despite increased (an in some case dominant) numbers of women being involved in both writing and publishing.

The judges are biased?

The second point in the Byrnes quote is the incredulous3 response to the possibility that Judges would be biased.  My response to that would be of course they are.  Not biased in the Naipaul sense- a blatant misogynistic bias against women (or other groupings in the community for that matter) but a hidden, unconscious or implicit bias. 

The employment sector dealt with this some time ago, mainly in relation to race, yet despite yeas of EEO policy,  many fail to understand why affirmative action for any disadvantaged group is necessary.

A little aside on Implicit bias.

It’s been found that most people have an implicit and unconscious bias against members of traditionally disadvantaged groups, this despite their education and their positive opinions(however strongly held).  It is quite possible to be strongly in favour of promoting equality, women's writing, yet still be biased in your actions judgements toward it.

Elizabeth Lhuede alludes to how this type of bias might form, particularly in women.  My own observations from teaching support the notion that gender stereotyping begins at the kindergarten stage( and probably before).

The Miles Franklin

The Stella would be condescending if the Miles Franklin was a fair race and it’s not, based on it’s historical results and the existence of implicit or unconscious bias.

How might bias, unconscious or otherwise effect the Miles Franklin or any other prize for that matter?

  1. Selection – The Miles Franklin is judged on books submitted by publishers and who knows what sort of decisions are made by publishing houses? Do they choose their “best horse” or do they throw all eligible authors in the race?Who at the publishing house gets to decide and what biases, conscious or unconscious are in play there?
  2. Judging - Next come the judges and I hasten to add this is not an attack on them, they have an unenviable task – between 60-70 books read and deliberated on in a matter of months.  Do they screen for unconscious bias? How would they?  A retrospective analysis of their reading patterns and choices? A structured critiquing of each others decisions? They whether male or female ( and the gender balance for 2011 as 60/40 in favour of women) are all subject to bias.

What’s to be done?

The judging panel is relatively stable and the gender representation is good ( at least 60/40 in favour of women for the last 10 years). On the face of it you could think that having more women judging would result in better representation of women writers in the results and hence the skewed results are actually reflective of quality of the work.

I would argue that implicit bias pays no heed to the gender of the judge, that specific training of judges, or the institution of structural or systematic tools to filter out as much bias as possible needs to occur. So that, if faced with an all male short list in 2012 we can have confidence in the notion that at least for that year we ruled out as much potential gender bias as possible. 

Perhaps the judges, some or al,l do try and address the issue, there’s no statement to that effect on the website though.    The judges already have to read all the texts once, the long listed works twice, prevaricate over decisions, all while holding down demanding day jobs.  What tools systems do you use to account for hidden bias, gender or otherwise that don’t turn what is already a gruelling job into one of the labours of Hercules?

A separate prize for women strikes me as a very easy way of countering gender bias in that respect – though it will have its own issues with bias4

Quotas and Tokenism

Instituting a quota system is a fairly rough tool, a quick fix that gets around training and consciousness raising of people who make employment decisions – which as the literature seems to suggest is very difficult even with people who hold positive opinions of disadvantaged groups.  I don’t think anyone would push for a quota in the Miles Franklin but an understanding of the existence of implicit bias and perhaps some attempt to reflect on how it might be affecting judgement would be a start.

Likewise no one wants to see women included just to make the awards look like they are handling the issue of gender bias. I do think though, that there is enough depth of talent in Australian literature that once you reflect on whether your reading selections and judgements are skewed by bias, broaden your reading,challenge your own perceptions, that there will be no shortage of quality writing by women. I am confident that it would only be the ever diminishing blatant misogynists that will raise a call of tokenism.

In summary

A literature prize for women is not condescending, it’s not condescension to ensure that men and women begin the race on the start line.  It’s a practical and efficient way of combating the weight of history and the power of dominant culture that affects us unconsciously. 

Those who decry affirmative action are ignoring reality, perceiving such awards as a head start, or  to really murder the racing analogy, a performance enhancing drug. When in reality women have been running with their shoelaces tied.

Extra reading:

A long, long way to go: different tools for new wave of feminism


1 A man who should be held in contempt for his views on women's writing in much the same way that HP Lovecraft should be held in contempt for his racist views. A man who claims that in a couple of paragraphs her can determine a writers gender.  I wonder if he has been called on this, put to the test or is he viewed like a kindly but embarrassing uncle that still makes Sambo jokes at family get togethers.?

2. And there is most definitely an issue, you can excuse a year here and there in the Miles Franklin results but a long analysis hints at something not quite right (see Sophie Cunningham here)

3. To be fair Byrnes may just be questioning the critics, tone in text and all that.

4.Race, Transgender Authors, etc. all topics worthy of another post.


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