Gender parity: A Special Guest Post

Gollancz is delighted to welcome a guest blogger to the site. Lizzie Barrett, known to many as @alittlebriton and as a mover and shaker within the BFS and Fantasycon communities, has been kind enough to let us repost her words about panels, and the importance of making sure voices from every walk, genre and gender of life are heard. This opinion piece came together with a little help from her friends (as all the best things do) namely Anne C. Perry, known to the SFF world as @thefingersofgod and as the quite marvellous @pornokitsch. It’s also featuring on our blog with the blessing of the lovely people at SFX, who you can find at, or @SFXmagazine.

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At the recent and wonderful SFX Weekender, a well publicised issue came to a head. It’s an annual convention which attracted around 6,000 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. ‘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 catalyze 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.

There’s an argument made that attempting to balance gender on panels would amount to positive discrimination. Which is strange as there are just as many, if not in fact, more female authors than male ones in the genre. How can you positively discriminate against the majority? Surely this is just correcting a visible gender imbalance. I am certain you could find as many women as men to talk about any topic in the genre.

Or perhaps the issue isn’t gender disparity, it’s simply quality disparity. That the reason there are fewer women on panels is because the quality of their writing isn’t as good as that of their male counterparts. Therefore, those (female) authors have less of a right to have their voices heard than male authors on panels.

I would like to think this claim is so absurd it wouldn’t be uttered and no one would stoop to defend it. But it has been uttered, and it does need to be fought. I do not believe that it just so happens that all the weak and/or mediocre authors in the genre are also women. It would be a remarkable coincidence to so neatly divide into good and bad, male and female.

It’s unlikely that Con organisers actively discriminate against women. But ‘we don’t discriminate; there just aren’t as many female authors’ gets bandied about a lot (or ‘there just aren’t as many good/popular/audience-favourite female authors‘) – and these blatantly aren’t true. There are just as many female authors in the SFF community as male, if not more. So why does the SFF convention-running world that was built decades ago still assume that most SFF is being written by men, for men?

This is not about creating all-female panels because, again, that’s not gender equality. This is not about the SFX Weekender. Other conventions cannot be so complacent as to lay this at SFX’s door. Refreshingly, SFX have listened to their audience and responded quickly by stating that they are going to do more to rectify the situation next year.

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.

Disclaimer: this is Lizzie Barrett’s personal opinion and not the opinion of the BFS, FCon or Gollancz.


Gillian Redfearn is the Deputy Publishing Director. She joined the team in 2004 and isn’t sure she’s left the office since. She loves travel, challenges and good fantasy novels, hates being bored and is largely ambivalent about chocolate. When not working in the Gollancz Dungeons she reads, practises archery, knits, conducts a never-ending war against her garden and doesn’t spend enough time in the gym . . .

You can follow her on twitter: GillianRedfearn

  • Many conventions, as far as I’m aware, rely on people volunteering to take part in the programme; at the risk of suggesting a vast gender stereotype, could it be that male SF fans/writers are more willing to “put themselves about”?

    • Hi Paul,

      That’s a good point and of course it’s a possibility. I’m not aware of any Con organisers commenting on this question – and I don’t think, as Bill says, anyone is suggesting there is a deliberate bias against female panellists. It’s possible that chaps are a little more assertive about being on panels, even if it’s as subtle a difference as ‘I’d like to be on a panel’ rather than ‘If you’d like me to, I’d be delighted’. Stereotypes can contain a grain of truth. . . . but I think it’s curious that, as Lizzie points out, there is such a difference between the male:female ratio of attendees, and the ratio appearing on panels. While you’ve put your finger, perhaps, on one of the issues, it seems that it can’t be the only one . . .?

      My personal experience, with authors of all stripes, is that they almost all volunteer for panels and are equally happy to participate in them because they love the subject and it’s a great opportunity to talk about their work. So, speaking for myself, it is a slightly puzzling issue!


    • I used to co-run a convention (and have experience with many more in various lesser capacities). While some of our speakers were volunteers, the bulk of our participants were specifically invited by us. Even if men are more likely to volunteer, that alone wouldn’t result in such a large gender disparity.

  • David

    While I understand the desire for gender equality and will assume that the statement that there are more female SFF authors then male is accurate, I can only think of two female authors that I have read in the last two years. The two that I have read are Anne Mccaffrey and Leah Eddings(co-author). I read mainly fantasy but also enjoy science fiction. Can somebody point me to some good fantasy/science fiction written by female authors? Then maybe I can comment intelligently on this article.

    • Aggrokitty

      Lois McMaster Bujold, full stop. Fantasy and science fiction, pick your poison. Also Robin Hobb, Rob Thurman (female writer, male pseudonym), Tanya Huff, Emma Bull (tends toward collaborations), Diane Duane. Bujold and Duane are my favorites on the short list; Robin Hobb writes excellent stories, but they tend toward downer endings and I can only read one at a time as a result. 🙂 Sheri S. Tepper has had a significant impact on the field, but will probably leave you wanting to throw her books across the room if you have the slightest deviation from her favored political perspective – I do, however, wholeheartedly recommend “Grass”. For starters. 🙂

    • Ursula LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle, Andre Norton, Octavia Butler, Susanna Clarke, N.K. Jemisin, Susan Cooper, Mary Shelley (the FIRST sci-fi novel, in fact), J.K. Rowling, Carrie Vaughn, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, Catherynne M. Valente, Rachel Swirsky, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Elizabeth Bear, Patricia Briggs, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kate Forsyth, Virginia Woolf (if you count Orlando, and I do), Nalo Hopkinson, Tanith Lee, Tamora Pierce, Patricia Wrede, Caroline Stevermer, Francesca Lia Block, Kendare Blake, Anne Rice, Jaqueline Carey, Suzanne Collins, Melissa Scott, Jenny Nimmo, Sheri Tepper, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Diana Wynne Jones… These are just the first few off the top of my head and the ones I happened to see on my bookshelves. There are many, many more.

      I read once that women are exponentially more likely than men to read outside their gender. I keep seeing more and more evidence that that’s true.

  • There are a lot but picking one at random who i’ve read recently Juliet E McKenna. Especially as you read a lot of fantasy.

    There are lots more just picking one at random.

  • During the convention, author China Miéville stepped down from a panel because there weren’t any women on it.

    It’s stuff like this that makes me love China Miéville.

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  • Suzanne B.

    Well, you could just look last year’s Hugo or World Fantasy or Nebula Ballot…
    NK Jemisin (epic fantasy). Incredible writer.
    Nnedi Okorafor – fantasy in an SF world – her novel “Who Fears Death” is gorgeous, but confrontational – it’s about, among other things, rape as a weapon of war.
    Connie Willis – SF. With Lois McMaster Bujold (mentioned above), one of the most celebrated authors in the field male OR female.
    Mary Robinette Kowal – SF short fiction, fantasy novels.
    Mira Grant – SF (zombies) Also writes urban fantasy under her Real Name, Seanan McGuire, for which she won the John Campbell Award.
    And these are just women who were nominated for the genre awards IN THE LAST YEAR. If you’d looked at the hugo/world fantasy/nebula ballots for best novel, you would assume that SFF was a female genre.

  • I do not believe that con organizers set out to deliberately exclude women from panels–honestly, why would any reasonable, intelligent person try to diminish interesting voices and opinions? I do believe that sci-fi/fantasy fans, especially con-goers and organizers, tend to run to the more articulate, educated and enlightened side of the ledger.

    That’s not to say that issues of gender equality are not necessarily without merit, just observing that I doubt it is a deliberate ploy by the Mean Boys Club.

    Maybe authors (of all types) might want to communicate and propose panels to the cons they are attending. Most cons are run by volunteers and organizational time is an issue — offering to provide great content without any added work on the part of the con staff should be well-received by any con organizer.

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