HomeAll postsTheresa Derwin: Gender Parity & Fandom

Theresa Derwin: Gender Parity & Fandom

a guest blog by Theresa Derwin, TAFF candidate running on a gender parity platform

As you might have expected, the death of Joanna Russ brought out a bunch of writers saying how much we under-rate Female SF. These articles I talk about have some great commentary.

First, I want to talk about gender parity in general. I quote here from a government site on the workplace; “Women are a critical and growing part of the global workforce. To remain competitive in a market where more equality for women often equals success for the company, businesses must learn to empower, advance, and invest in women.”

It is therefore true of life in general, and fandom, that we need to remember to treat everyone with equity and ensure that aim to achieve gender parity as well as remembering equity for race, religion, sexual orientation and those with disabilities.

I looked at some of the government papers on gender parity to try and nail down a definition.

The Gender Parity Index (GPI) is a socioeconomic index usually designed to measure the relative access to education of males and females. In its simplest form, it is calculated as the quotient of the number of females by the number of males enrolled in a given stage of education (primary, secondary, etc.). It is used by international organizations, particularly in measuring the progress of developing countries. The Institute for Statistics of UNESCO also uses a more general definition of GPI: for any development indicator one can define the GPI relative to this indicator by dividing its value for females by its value for males. [1] For example, some UNESCO documents consider gender parity in literacy. [2]

Requoting here; “the quotient of the number of females by the number of males enrolled in a given stage of education” can  be applied to any area of life including fandom. It is here I would suggest that an issue lies. Not with attendance at Cons so much, but in participation at panels at Cons.

Last November I attended a first time Horror con, Horror in the East, created to get fans together of Horror and David Moody in particular. This con was predominantly organised by a woman.  There were a few panels and some excellent items on horror in general, however, at the final round up of panelists/guest authors etc gathered together for a photo op, I noticed that all, and I do mean every single one of the authors, panelists and moderators was male. So I asked the question as follows; “I’m not a bra burning looney, just a woman who is concerned, so I wanted to know ‘where are the women?’ Every person standing up there, and I know they are a talented bunch, are male. What about female moderators or horror authors? Where are they?”

After a few embarrassed blank stares and looks exchanged it was with, ironically, a surmounting feeling of horror, that I received the following answer from the female organiser. “I didn’t ask any – female writers just write Mills & Boon s*** (cue expletive).” Now, I stood up, and I didn’t have a go, I just stood there in dumb awe as she continued to rant about the writing quality by female authors, when a friend interrupted with “Don’t bother, you’ve done what you wanted”, namely, because the organisers dug their own grave. And my argument was aided by Michael Wilson of ‘This Is Horror’, who raved about the female horror authors producing quality work.

In Eastercon 2012 you may also remember that there was a bruhaha over gender parity when the question was asked by Paul Cornell of the Satellite 4 committee “will you be ensuring gender parity at the Con?”

I don’t remember who answered, but I believe the answer finished with “no, quality is more important than parity.”

As in my other experience, the room exploded. Perhaps it was just the way the answer was phrased, but the inference taken on by a few attendees was that quality on panels would be lost at the expense of ensuring gender parity. Now, I actually believe in retrospect that what the individual was trying to get across was that it is important to obtain a good quality selection of panellists. However, that isn’t the message that came across. Whilst I understand it is important to get expertise, surely a good panelist is one who questions and debates on the topic with a decent level of knowledge rather than them necessarily being an expert. At Eastercon 2013 I was on a Dr Who panel; I’m a fan but by no means an expert, yet I still feel I did myself proud. Of course, Juliet McKenna made it known that her aim was to achieve gender parity at the con on panels and I think in the main the committee achieved this, even if some of the panelists and panels felt a little bit like ‘square pegs in round holes’. Overall though, there was a good gender and multicultural balance, though I would argue we need to do more here.

At the recent SFX Weekender, 2012, a well publicised issue came to a head. It’s an annual convention which attracted around 4,000 attendees this year, who were split fairly evenly between genders (2011 saw 53% female to 47% male). During the convention, author China Miéville stepped down from a panel because there weren’t any women on it. Paul Cornell followed this by publicly announcing that he would step down from any panel if he felt there was a gender imbalance, in order to make space for a female author. This was a stance he also took at Eastercon 2012. ‘So,’ Cornell writes, ‘this year, I’ve decided that I’m going to approach this problem via the only moral unit I’m in charge of: me. I’m going to approach this problem from the other end. And this approach is going to be very much that of a blunt instrument.’ Adam Roberts has just said he’ll join him in this.

Although the argument about gender and sexism in the science fiction and fantasy community has been ongoing for some time, the SFX Weekender had the fortune (or misfortune) to catalyse many of the issues.

It is common, at Conventions, to see four times as many men on panels as women, often despite the fact that there are many more female authors, editors, and publishers at the Convention … in the audience. Given that a gender split of 60% women to 40% men is about average at genre Conventions, this ratio is rarely reflected in the panels and guests of honour. It should be the responsibility of a Con organiser to notice the gender imbalance and address it – before the Convention.

Interestingly, SFX stood down from holding the con in 2013, and it became Sci Fi Weekender. In a semi-failed attempt to redress the balance, they hosted two panels ‘For the Boys’ and ‘For the Girls’ to compare the male and female experience of the publishing industry. Er, surely it should have been a mixed panel on the topic if they really wanted to compare? Further on this, I was lucky enough to be on a horror panel with three of my male horror idols; Simon Clark, David Moody & Wayne Simmons. The moderator was male, and there were two more male horror hacks as well as, yes, little old me! Do the maths! It doesn’t work.

Of course, the disparity stretches further into the realms of the t’internet.

Heather from The Galaxy Express, though talking about SFR (Science Fiction Romance) still has some valid points to make. She talks about an infamous post in which the author rants and raves about how women are destroying the very foundation of science fiction. If you have not seen it, here are a few excerpts:

Science fiction is a very male form of fiction. Considerably more men than women are interested in reading and watching science fiction than women. This is no surprise. Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc. Many men working in the fields of science, engineering, and technology have cited science fiction (such as the original Star Trek) for inspiring them when they were boys to establish careers in these fields.

What has happened is that science fiction on television has for the most part become indistinguishable from most other television shows which are written for women filled with moronic relationship drama. Sure the moronic relationship drama is in space, but … its not science fiction anymore, and men are not interested in moronic relationship drama in space…

With women killing science fiction on television, the current generation of boys won’t have this opportunity to be inspired to work in these fields. There is still a great deal of written science fiction that is real science fiction so all is not lost. However, many boys who would have gone on to make scientific discoveries and invent new technologies will not do so since they will never be inspired by science fiction as boys.

 The feminization of the Sci-Fi channel was not limited to Battlestar Galactica. Over time there has been more fantasy and less science fiction because women are more interested in the supernatural and the paranormal. Scripts were rewritten to have “more relationships


Bellow I quote Heather:

 “The above misogynistic vitriol in the quoted article (not to the mention the homophobic undertones) represents an extreme view of women in SF (as readers, writers, etc.). Unfortunately, it’s hardly a new attitude.

In response to the Smart Bitches post on the topic, Cora (#86) notes that “…the attitude behind the article is not that uncommon in the SFF community. Because there are a lot of people in the SFF community (and not all of them are male) who have serious issues with the changing genre landscape and particularly the influx of female fans and writers.””

Personally, I would respond in an intellectual manner: bollocks! What about the increase in female and black students of the Sciences following seeing Uhura as a positive role model? I doubt very much that this would’ve happened were it not for Star Trek.

enterprising womenSpeaking of which, if you want to know more on this topic pick up Enterprising Women by Camille Bacon-Smith, a great book.

Heather further notes that “Anthologies of ‘great’ SF are still routinely published without a single woman’s contribution included. Publishers often push women in a subtle way to focus on fantasy and paranormal writing. Even among so-called enlightened SF literati it is not uncommon to hear people say that women can’t write hard SF.”
An exception to this, most notable, is the work of Ian Whates’ NewCon Press and his work for Solaris with the SF anthologies ‘Solaris Rising‘ and ‘Solaris Rising 2‘, two wonderful SF volumes with capture the essence of the genre utilising a mix of gender and cultural backgrounds. It is ironic that he was criticised for lack of gender parity in the first book, but if the writers won’t submit, what can we do? I would say encourage writers further. Speaking to a number of Editors, many believe that women take longer to submit due to confidence issues, but their work requires less editing, because they have taken that long, thorough road.
A further response from Heather is “Fantasy publishing is exploding partly because it’s one of the genres where women authors are valued by the publishing industry, and so women interested in speculative writing are fleeing to fantasy when they find the SF clubhouse doors locked. Where are the great new female hard SF writers and space opera directors and showrunners? We aren’t hearing from them because the SF community doesn’t believe that women truly love SF. And so people with power – unlike Spearhead guy – aren’t publishing women or giving them development deals.”

Aliette de Bodard has recently blogged about gender and racial equity when talking about Seraphina.

 “It’s a bit like… imagine an SFF book with a made-up universe which has a species with two genders, one of which is deemed inferior to the other, prone to hysterics, and only suited for bearing and raising babies at home. Would you really be praising the forward-thinking and awesome depiction of gender issues of such a book? [2] That’s a bit how I feel about Seraphina: the setup is kind of cool, but I can’t get over the fact that it has nothing to do with my experience as a mixed-race person; and in fact promotes a false idea of what this experience is like today.

When compiling this article, I looked at the various blogs out there, and it came to me that the soundest one with relevant thoughts on gender parity appears to be by Cheryl Morgan. She is the former non-fiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine. She blogs at Cheryl’s Mewsings and Science Fiction Awards Watch. She owns Wizard’s Tower Press, which operates an ebook store. Cheryl is also a director of the parent organization for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards. Her writing and editing have won her three Hugo Awards. She lives near Bath in England. I can do no better than copy some of her thoughts here, which reflect my own thoughts.

Guest Post: Checking the Gender Balance by Cheryl Morgan

“Of late some of the news has been good. Anthology editors such as Jonathan Strahan are very much aware of the issue, and the number of women on the Hugo and Nebula ballots appears to be increasing. Lauren Beukes recently became an international sensation after winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award” (Theresa: as did Jane Roger with ‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb). But in other areas it has been very much the same old story. Theresa: We can also look at the success of Jo Walton’s Among Others as further evidence that it isn’t all depressing news! By the way, Jo Walton is GoH at Novacon 43 this year! (Shameless plug there)

“The most recent round of controversy has centered around The Guardian, a British newspaper with an internationally read website. The paper has been very proactive in covering SF&F literature, using young bloggers such as Sam Jordison, Alison Flood and Damien G. Walter. But at the same time there is a suggestion of an emphasis on science fiction as “books for boys”. A similar attitude was displayed by Ginia Bellafante in her now notorious New York Times review of the Game of Thrones TV series.

Prompted by the British Library’s wonderful summer exhibition about science fiction, “Out of this World”, The Guardian’s weekend review section devoted an entire issue to SF. This included a number of luminaries writing about their favorite novel. Most of the people asked to contribute were men. Of the men, only Kim Stanley Robinson picked a book by a woman, and many of the women also picked books by men. Later The Guardian asked its readers to pick their all-time favorite SF book. Nicola Griffith did some quick math on the results and found that women writers accounted for only 4% of reader picks.

From there the debate spiraled away with many people, including myself, pontificating on the subject. The Guardian ran an article by David Barnett with the provocative opening line of “Is science fiction sexist?”, illustrated with Chris Foss’s 1975 cover of J.G. Ballard’s Crash which features a near-naked woman. Unsurprisingly the article’s comment thread quickly became dominated by male trolls.

Before I get on to discussion of the actual issues, I should comment on the role of The Guardian in all this. Although it is predominantly sympathetic to feminism, the paper still has to earn advertising revenue, and if you are looking for lots of hits on a website then controversy is the way to go. That appears to have informed their SF coverage. John Clute tells me that contributors to the review special issue were given a range of topics to write about, including “a book that influenced you a lot as a child,” which he opted for. He was somewhat surprised to see all of the picks published as the contributors’ view of the “best science fiction novel.”

Cheryl also asks “Are British publishers and fans more sexist than their US counterparts? Farah Mendlesohn did some quick counts of winners of science fiction awards and found that the (fan-voted) British Science Fiction Association Awards had a very low number of women winners (2 Best Novel wins in 41 years) compared to other well-known awards, although the (juried) Arthur C. Clarke Award seemed fairly well-disposed towards women. The matter was even discussed at the BSFA’s recent Annual General Meeting, which lead to a long discussion on Juliet E. McKenna’s LiveJournal.”

Why is it that, when several hundred presumed fans were asked to name their favorite SF book, only 4% picked a book by a woman? Why also did a recent Gollancz poll looking for the top 5 SF books of all time feature only 2 women in a field of 25? Why does Forbidden Planet’s recent “50 SF Books You Must Read” include only 4 by women?

This being the Internet, I should start by addressing the obvious strawman argument. No one is expecting a 50:50 split. But 96:4? Really?”


For an enjoyable yet quirky slant on this issue, let me bring to your attention Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins.

Reflecting on a Star Wars fanzine, in which fan-fiction was published, Lucas Film got all legal on the fanzine writers instead of using this free form of publicity, declaring that no one other than Lucas Film was allowed to dabble with their characters, even in fan-fic. As Jenkins puts it, “a heated editorial in Slaysu, a fanzine that routinely published feminist-inflected erotica set in various media universes, reflects these writer’s opinions:

Lucasfilm is saying “you must enjoy the characters of the Star Wars universe for male reasons. Your sexuality must be correct and proper by my (male) definition. I am not male. I do not want to be. I refuse to be a poor imitation, or worse, of someone’s idiotic ideal of femininity.  Siebert, 1982, pp.44”  

Jenkins, p. 31

I want to finish with the following thought, bringing it back to a guest Gollancz post on gender parity at Cons:

“Convention organisers today must make peace with the fact that women are highly involved in the genre and they must take women into account, both as contributors and consumers. Ensuring that Con panels contain a variety of voices, from a variety of genres as well as both genders, is the first step in that direction.”

So, the questions I ask are these: Is it intention or just ignorance on behalf of Con organisers when women are excluded? Is it that women do not have the same confidence as men to volunteer and put themselves forward for panels as panelists or moderators? Are women politely refused places on panels (in my experience in the horror community the answer is yes) or are there not enough (do the maths, do the maths,cough) female fans? I really don’t have many of the answers.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Theresa Derwin 10th April 2013

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


  1. Speaking very generally

    1) Subconcious cultural bias that tends to direct their attention towards male participants regardless of the gender of the organiser
    2) Profile of male participants higher gained through historical and cultural factors
    3) The same women being called on to do panels at different events resulting in fatigue
    4) Women have to prove their cred when men don’t or haven’t had to
    5) Women lacking the experience (note not the qualification) of speaking in front of large audiences less likely to apply
    6) Good old fashioned blatant sexism
    7) Risk opening themselves up to all sorts of sexist nonsense from con goers and fellow panelists.

    I nearly fell of my chair when you related what the female organizer said about women writers of horror has she not heard of Shirley Jackson, or any number of the current crop of female horror writers?

  2. In answer to your question Theresa, I volunteered for a panel on fanzines in 2011 and was turned down. There were only two panelists, both men, and they finished their panel early. I’m not sure if I was turned down because I’m a woman or because Dark Matter was the ‘new kid on the block’.


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