Catherine Nichols wrote an interesting article about querying her novel first under her own name, and then under a man’s name, as a kind of scientific experiment. The results were depressing: the “male” writer received 17 requests out of 50 queries sent, and the female writer received 2—yes, 2—requests out of 50 queries sent.
As someone who, in a past life, took two graduate statistics classes, I can say these results are statistically significant, i.e. it is highly unlikely they would occur by chance. Of course, Nichols didn’t provide details on how she chose the agents so it is possible the agents she queried as a woman were more in-demand, and thus less likely to request materials. But in her article, she doesn’t mention any distinction between the two groups.
Discovering whether an industry is operating with unconscious biases is difficult. By definition, people aren’t even aware of their own unconscious biases. They won’t be caught, red-handed, saying things like, “Jeez, women can’t write great books.” The only way to see unconscious biases is to run experiments like these, which of course most writers aren’t willing to do since it might sabotage their career. What if an agent had wanted to represent the male writer? Would the agent have proceeded when they found out “he” was actually a she? Perhaps, if the agent loved the manuscript enough. But maybe not. Deception is not the best foundation for a good working relationship.
For me, these results were surprising since there is no shortage of female writers. In some genres, like romance, the authors are overwhelmingly female. It would be interesting to see if a male submitting a romance novel would do better or worse than his female counterpart. Though it might seem like a field populated with females would be free of gender bias, it’s not clear that this is always the case. Male nurses, for example, make more than female nurses, on average, even though female nurses are over 90% of the field.
However, Nichols was writing in a field where men have been, historically, dominant: literary fiction. While there are many brilliant women writing literary fiction, if you look at the top awards in the field, they still mostly go to men. In the last twenty years, the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, for example, was awarded to 6 women (32%), and the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to 5 women (25%).
Historically, the proportions look even worse. The literary canon, as taught in schools, is overwhelmingly filled with male authors, and the Nobel Prize in Literature was only awarded to 12 women in the last hundred years.
So maybe, with those cultural touchstones, it shouldn’t be surprising there is still, for some, a lingering unconscious bias assuming that great literary books will be written by men. What we really need is an academic researcher to conduct a study, much like was done with symphony orchestras. If unconscious gender bias is demonstrated to be a problem in the publishing process, agents and editors could switch to gender-blind submissions, to the degree possible. After all, it is easy enough to read a manuscript without knowing the author’s name.
In the meantime, any wary female writers can always pull a J.K. Rowling and sign off with their initials.