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.