• Heather Gosling

Gender Bias In Literature

by Heather Gosling, Staff Contributor

Shirley Jackson, writer of “The Lottery”, wrote about an exchange she had with a hospital receptionist. The exchange went as follows:


“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.

We would hope that in 2020, this exchange would never occur. But in the world of literature, it seems that women are constantly underrepresented and underestimated in the field. In an ideal world, someone’s gender or ethnicity would have no bearing on how their literary work is perceived. This is not the case. Women are expected to write romantic sentimental fiction (the literary equivalent of a chick flick), whereas their male counterparts are lauded for their work in fantasy and adventure genres.

In recent years, there has been a rise in female authors, but there is still an unconscious gender bias within the publishing industry that prevents women from succeeding. The most recent example of this is Joanne Rowling’s publisher telling her to use a shortened version of her name, JK Rowling, to anticipate readers who would not like to read fantasy written by a woman. Granted, JK Rowling is a hugely acclaimed novelist, but it is the idea that in the twenty-first century someone would refuse to read a book because it was written by a woman that is so archaic.

In 2015, Catherine Nichols conducted a study on the gender bias in the industry. She sent her novel off to several literary agents; half she sent with a male pseudonym, and half with her real name. The ‘male’ author received 8 and ½ times more positive responses than when Catherine used her real name. This type of gender bias excludes women from literature, the same demographic who are the main consumers. In the UK, women purchase over of books. The publishing industry cannot afford to marginalise its largest consumer, stories are a reflection of our lives and this is why we need diverse literature written by authors from a range of different backgrounds.

And this bias does not just exist in the publishing industry, it exists in the books the publishers print as well. An analysis of 3.5 million books has shown a deeply entrenched gender bias in literature. The study concluded that female characters were twice as likely to be described by their physical characteristics, “beautiful” and “sexy” being the top two adjectives used to describe them. Male characters on the other hand, were described as “brave” and “righteous”. This type of language affects the readers of these novels, many young women internalise these adjectives.

The gender bias in literature has existed for a long time, and although we have made progress, there is still more work to be done. Despite the recent rise in female authors, they are still being consistently overlooked for literary awards. Male authors are more likely to win awards, and they are also more likely to be included on school’s reading lists. There has been a significant amount of discussion surrounding female authors, we are still a long way from parity. We need to create space for women from diverse backgrounds and allow their voices to be heard.

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