My Reading, Gender Quotas

About a year ago I said I wanted to read more books written by women. This was largely to identify whether or not I was being sexist (unintentionally) in my reading. I tend to interact with books in different ways – some I’ll read parts of some for research, whereas others I’ll blast the whole way through. I had an ambitious “aim for 90% women writers” target for my reading, in which I failed miserably. In my vague record I seriously interacted with just under 50 books for 2013, and ended up with an approximate skewing of 60% male writers to 40% female.


1) For many historical topics (this year’s fascination was on Anglo-Saxons as well as Romans) there are virtually no female writers. It’s so utterly male-dominated you would think it a 19th Century gentlemen’s club, and not publishing in 2013. That’s part of the reason I read more men than women this year.

2) Same goes for British nature writing. It’s absurdly skewed towards men – there are a handful of great female writers (Kathleen Jamie today, Ella Pontefract in yesteryear), but it was hard to find any books not written by men. There are publishers to a great job of bringing back writers of the past, such as Little Toller books. But when their list is 95% men, you get to see the problem isn’t anything new.

3) Sexism is invisible in publishing, for some genres more than others. You might not need to be sexist to reinforce sexism, because it’s such a part of the industry. Perhaps more specifically, women are invisible in some genres of publishing more than others.

4) This is, of course, most certainly not unique to publishing, but many facets of society. Or rather, it is society. Only by making a conscious choice – a quota – could I get close to a balance. But even then some areas of my reading are so dominated by men that it was almost impossible to get balance.

5) Making quotas exposes you to new writers. This is good for so many reasons.

6) Things are just as bad, if not worse, for non-white writers. I dare say that the ethnic diversity of the UK is not reflected in publishing.

7) I’m going to try harder next year. I’m going to actively contact publishers in my own areas of interest and ask them why they aren’t publishing more women writers. Imagine how cool it would be if more people did that?

8) Apologies that this deals with gender in a binary sense.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. michaeljorangemikelowrey

    It’s always stunning to see how many publishers think they are not discriminating, when what they are doing is just hanging with their own crowd and people with whose voice they feel comfortable. At least in SF and fantasy, we know we have a problem and have been trying to deal with it; so-called mainstream literature is clueless, I fear.

  2. Hey, you know that’s a very good point about our genre. Though we criticise it much – and rightly so – it’s a long way ahead of any other genre…

  3. It may come as a surprise to you, Mark, but reading women authors won’t help you stem sexism, just the same as reading other authors won’t help anyone stem whatever it is they are searching for. Women can be just as sexist as men, just in a different way.

  4. Hi Viktoria. Thanks for the comment, though I wasn’t altering my own reading habits to stem sexism – merely to identify the problems, share them and maybe make some personal growth. Did you have a particular point you wanted to expand upon with sexism?

  5. Sharing what you see as problems can be a dangerous game, fun, but dangerous. I’ve seen many books where the author has tried to cover every eventuality, to offend no one, and they lose the plot completely, get tied up in PC language and just blabber. In American society at the moment, especially through mediums such as Twitter, almost everyone with a name is being attacked for something that they’ve written – Steve Martin is the latest – whether it is innocent or not. No matter what we write, someone is going to be offended.

    That said, I do believe that we, as readers, should try and cover as many different styles of writers as possible, rather than remain genre-ridden in our choices. What we read enhances our own writing, even if it doesn’t necessarily remove those little things which others find offensive. And, yes, women writers can be just as offensive – whether the mean to be or not (did you catch the ‘I am white’ Tweet from Sacco?) – whether they are fully represented in the world of literature or not.

  6. I’m not disagreeing with what you say, but I think this is an argument to a different set of questions.

  7. Quite possibly. However, trying to concentrate on one genre, on just women writers, or just black writers, or just this or that isn’t necessarily going to make publishing any better. I’m not sure that many publishers actively seek out male writers for their publishing plans: many will tell you that the choice amongst women writers simply isn’t there, that they aren’t sending in manuscripts of the right quality or in a certain quantity to raise the number who are published.

    The problem with a quota is that anyone subjected to it is going to be forced to follow that set of numbers regardless of whether the quality is good. We can see it in management in many international companies: there are fewer women in the higher positions. Force a quota upon those companies and people of lesser quality get through. Force the companies to employ a gender-free policy and the best qualified make the grade.

    In the end it also comes down to what people are reading. The book purchaser decides what is going to be a bestseller, and the publisher has to adapt to the marketplace more than just to a whim or a quota. There are fewer female authors than male authors, not just published but actively writing, and that is something which we cannot change so easily.

  8. Well, it seems you want to discuss another topic from what I posted, but I’ll briefly engage with your points.

    I think you’re wrong. No quotas would be the ideal, but you assume it’s a level playing field. It isn’t. I Culture has – and has been for centuries – been harbouring racism and sexism in invisible as well as visible ways. You must think of the bigger picture and not short term-ism. A few years of quotas could make a massive structural adjustment in terms of culture. Seeing artificially reconstructed balance speaks to future generations and inspires them so that, in a few years, sure there might not need to be a quota. Wonderful. But you’re being blind to the invisible and institutional prejudices – which need forcible readjustment in the short term, to make up for centuries of the opposite.

    Of your last paragraph, I have no idea where you got the statistics from, if anywhere, so I can’t really engage on that other than to say having worked for over a decade in the world of books – in bookselling, publishing and as a writer – that isn’t the case at all and is nothing but reckless commentary. There may be fewer published in some genres, but to extrapolate that into a broad and incorrect statement seems a bit odd to say the least, and unless you can back that up with numbers that probably don’t exist save for the occasional example in one genre here and there then I think it should be left alone.