This is evidence of something but of what, I’m not sure

The BBC’s short story contest has, after a selection process in which author gender wasn’t known, selected an all-female shortlist. It isn’t a contest that I’m familiar with but apparently, it has been running for 13 years and on four previous occasions the shortlist has been all women*.

It’s nice to see authors being celebrated this way and the ‘blind’ selection process undermines the likely claim from the intransigently anti-women section of society that the nominees were chosen based on ‘affirmative action’ or some anti-men sentiment. I say ‘undermines’ because, of course, it hasn’t stopped the usual misogynistic comments on social media.

As a positive story it is still interesting to look at in terms of how results from awards may depart from simple demographic splits. As I’ve discussed here before, quantifying the discrepancy between actual results and what those result might be if demographic profile was effectively random, versus understanding were that discrepancy comes from and whether it is a problem are two very different things. First things first though, is the shortlist of five women numerically remarkable?

The prize has been running since 2006 and by my count from Wikipedia five of the twelve winners have been women. According to the Guardian article, about 57% of submissions are from women.

  • In 2017 the shortlist of 5 included 2 women,
  • 2016 had 5 women,
  • 2015 had 2 women,
  • 2014 had 5 women,
  • 2013 had 5 women,
  • 2012 had a longer shortlist** with of 10 authors of which 6 were women,
  • 2011 had 3 women
  • 2010 had 3 women
  • 2009 had 5 women
  • 2008 had 3 women
  • 2007 had 2 women***
  • 2006 had 2 women on a shortlist of four

Looking at the list there are few obvious things: many of the same authors get nominated (which isn’t surprising) and just eyeballing the numbers suggests women are more likely to get nominated but it isn’t a trend as such. Of the 64 nominees, 43 were women, about 67% which is more than would be predicted if the distribution was 50-50 and is higher than expected using a 57%-43% split based on submission rates.

Interestingly these rates make the gender split on the winners also look oddly biased (in the statistical sense). Only five of the winners are women, 38% of the winners out of 67% of the nominees. I can’t find exact details of the judging process but I assume it is the same panel of judges in a given year who both shortlist and decide the finalist. There’s no simple model of personal gender bias that easily accounts for a jury that is gender biased in two directions 🙂

One difference is that the while the shortlisting is done ‘blind’ the selection of the winner is not. However, looking at the recurrence of names among the nominees, the role of ‘blind’ shortlisting can be overstated — notable authors have notable styles and even without names some stories are easily recognised (e.g. 2015 shortlisted nominee was Hilary Mantel’s comical tale “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher“). It is also reasonable to speculate that judges are looking for qualities in the short stories that may be more common among women authors — not because gender determines how people write but because of the on-going mechanics of expectations on creative people in a gendered society. Perhaps that explains both sets of results?

Simple proximate causes are inadequate here.

*[The reporting was in terms of male versus female, so I don’t know what the figures would be if the authors were classified with a broader view of gender. Without full author bios, the counts here are based on gendered first names or pronouns used in associated stories.]

**[To coincide with the Olympics the competition was opened up to more nationalities.]

***[Four nominated works and five nominated authors as one story was by two authors “Slog’s Dad” by Margaret Drabble & Dave Almond]



7 thoughts on “This is evidence of something but of what, I’m not sure

  1. It’s a vast left-wing conspiracy!

    But seriously, I do wish there were practical ways to do more blinded awards. But they would require, at the very least, soliciting new, unpublished works — and that would get really expensive and/or impractical.

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  2. Offhand and without statistical rigor, if men are finding it easier to get published, they are selling more of their best stories. Leaving women with better stack of unpublished work on their desks when they answer contest solicitations.


    1. And after thinking about it for ten minutes, I would test it by surveying working writers to build a model of their production and submissions (hello queuing theory, why don’t you show up more often) and building an agent simulation to see if it yielded similar results. (By strange coincidence, I have a degree in creative writing and a degree in math, so I suppose I’m as well qualified as anyone to try it.)

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