Doing a Tootsie - a good hard look at your own reading gender bias


How many books by women have you read this year?  Why is it important to read books by women writers? Shouldn't you just read what you want and not even think of the gender of the writer?

Well, it isn't that simple.

I used to read mostly books by men. I had a thing for European male writers and a bigger thing for Eastern European male writers. I didn't even realise my gender bias, I just liked bleak books from Eastern Europe often with black or grey covers and preferably with ambiguous or tragic endings. Just like people who are dating, I had a 'type' and I didn't question that type, I was just drawn almost magnetically to those sad thoughtful boys of literature. On the surface that is fine. If you are drawn to that skinny nerdy boy in the bar who is reading a science text book whilst pushing his glasses up his nose (and yes that was one of my 'types' when I was dating), then it seems smart enough to just go flirt with the person you are automatically drawn to.

But just pause for a moment to watch this clip of Dustin Hoffman talking about his research for Tootsie.

Dating to type means that you miss out on all the wonderful people who are not fitting into your narrow parameters. Just as Hoffman has missed out on dating some wonderful women who did not fit into his idea of attractive, I had also missed out on reading some of the wonderful writers who I had overlooked because I was sticking to one type of writer.

Women writers are often less featured in the literary landscape. We know because of the Vida Count and the Stella Count that female writes are less visible than male writers. They get reviewed less often and they win less awards. This is a pure gender bias. This is like Dustin Hoffman ignoring the older, fatter, uglier woman at the party, sticking to type and talking to the pretty one and missing out on something wonderful.

I was doing this very thing in my reading.

It takes effort to seek out the women who are writing books in some genres. My sad old Eastern European male writers were standing in the way of sad old Eastern European female writers like Dubravka Ugresic and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Knowing my own bias I actively sought out women writing in the genre I loved and as a result I was rewarded with two amazing new finds as a result.

Similarly, my love of science means that male writers outnumber women almost ten to one. So many great male science writers, but dig a little and you'll discover Lisa Randall and Sy Montgomery and Guilia Enders.

I always check my gender bias now. It is an effort. It is also an effort to find some of the great women working in the field, but it has been well worth it and I will continue to put in the effort.

*For help finding women writers in Australian fiction you could check out the Australian Women Writers' Challenge.