Female authors do not have as many reviews published as male authors in popular media outlets and are much less likely to be shortlisted for major literary awards as men. Major international newspapers and magazines continued to give disproportionate attention to male authors over female authors in their book review columns in 2011. Matthia Dempsey had a look at the review pages of major Australian media outlets and found that a similar trend can be observed here.
I haven’t seen a further breakdown of these statistics but I am curious. Are female novelists more susceptible to this treatment than female authors of non-fiction books? I don’t know. While compiling a list of histories and biographies written by women, I decided to find out what proportion of book reviews in three Australian academic history journals are of books written by female historians.
I didn’t expect to find a disproportionate coverage of books written by men in the review columns of these journals as I had not experienced or seen any issues on that front in my time studying history at university. The results of my analysis of two of the history journals did not surprise me.
This analysis did not detect a gender issue lurking in the book review pages of these academic journals.
But then I did the same analysis of the book reviews published by another Australian academic history journal. They showed quite a different story:
Responses from the Book Review Editors
I was flummoxed by the results of my simple analysis of the Australian Journal of Politics and History so I e-mailed the editor of the book review pages, Paul Crook. He had a similar reaction to mine:
I must say, that like you, I was surprised at the figure. I was under the impression that we reviewed loads of books by women writers, just as we have plenty of women contributors and reviewers.
On the journal’s review policy, he commented:
Our journal simply reviews books of merit or interest that come within our remit (printed on the inside cover) irrespective of gender, ethnicity or personality.
This sounds similar to the policy of Australian Historical Studies. The review editors of this journal, Katie Holmes, Tiffany Shellam and Bart Zino, explained to me in an e-mail:
[T]o date we haven’t monitored the percentages of reviews by female historians and we haven’t had a policy on it. It’s a worthy debate to have however, and we will endeavour to monitor our journal’s output more closely. We would be very hesitant however to impose quotas on reviews which would be likely to impede the editors’ freedom to engage with the areas of dynamic and emerging scholarship that we might like to raise.
This response raises the difficult question of maintaining high academic standards while attending to equality issues. I don’t think it would be appropriate to lower standards in an attempt to increase the participation of various groups on the pages of an academic journal. That work should be done through the education and mentoring process that academics go through. However, while the book reviews in Australian Historical Studies are slightly weighted in favour of male authors, I don’t believe that it is something to be overly concerned about.
Zora Simic described some of her work as book reviews editor for History Australia:
[A]s a female, and indeed feminist historian myself I always notice when a new work is published by a female historian, and want to get it reviewed if I can. Sometimes this involves contacting publishers directly if they have not yet sent me an important work of history written by a female historian.
Yet History Australia seems to have had a similar approach to this issue as the other journals with respect to a formal policy on gender in the reviews section. Zora Simic was not aware of History Australia having a policy to maintain the gender balance in their reviews pages in the past and said that “it would be too difficult to enforce” if there was such a policy.
The reviews editors at both History Australia and Australian Historical Studies emphasised that practical issues regarding finding a suitably qualified person willing to review a book and the varying length of time that it takes the reviewers to review a book, can play havoc with the balance of reviews in any particular issue. Zora Simic explained:
[T]he review process – finding a reviewer, waiting for the review, editing the review – is different in academic journals to say the reviews pages of a major newspaper. We offer no payment, and there is no publication recognition so people basically do reviews as an act of good academic citizenship, and out of their own interest. Whatever care I may take (and I do) to ensure a spread of topics, books by male and female historians etc, the eight of nine reviews that end up in the journal in any given edition are rather random – i.e. a mix of those you submitted reviews when requested and those who were late.
It was for this reason that I decided to analyse all reviews published over a two-year period. I was concerned that over a short period the figures may produce spurious results.
Why is the Australian Journal of Politics and History Different to Other Australian History Journals?
I am left none the wiser about why the proportion of reviews of books written by women would be so different in the Australian Journal of Politics and History to the other academic journals I analysed. There are a number of possible reasons:
- This journal can be regarded as an interdisciplinary journal. I did not make any attempt to separate reviews of histories from reviews of books that could be regarded as belonging to political science. However, I don’t see why the inclusion of political science books should give any cause to significantly reduce the percentage of reviews of works written by female authors published.
- Women don’t write as many political histories as men. The Journal covers “politics and history of Australia and modern Europe, intellectual history, political history, and the history of political thought” as well as “international politics, Australian foreign policy, and Australia’s relations with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region”. I struggle with the thought that women are not as interested in these areas as men.
- This is a reflection on the numbers of women working as academics in the areas of political history and political science. Perhaps there are fewer women employed by universities in these areas? I don’t know.
Another possibility that must be considered is the simple methodology I used may be flawed or incorrectly applied. For this reason I have uploaded the spreadsheets I used for my calculations to Google Docs so that you can review my calculations. As you will see I simply copied and pasted the titles and author(s) names of each book reviewed into a spreadsheet, identified which authors were female, counted their books and expressed this as a percentage of all books that were reviewed. I excluded edited books from the analysis as I am interested in authorship, not the gender of those editing the books. Book reviews of edited books generally don’t disclose the names of contributing authors to the books. If I had included only those books edited by a woman, I would have excluded from consideration books edited by men but with chapters written by women.
I have noted elsewhere that without realising it I was reading a disproportionate number of histories written by men. I don’t know why, but this year I have taken steps to rectify this imbalance with the encouragement of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It has been observed many times with regards to the neglect of women writers in the reviews pages of mainstream media that it is unlikely to be caused by deliberate bias by editors. It is more likely that more subtle and subconscious factors are causing this. The best remedy is to expose the issue, question the causes and make efforts to address it where this is possible without compromising the quality of the journal.
Thankyou to all the editors for responding to my questions about this issue.
If you are looking to read more histories and biographies written by women, you should be able to find one that interests you from the list I have compiled from the reviews pages of the three Australian academic history journals discussed above and from a few other sources.