“27 out of the 98 writers I studied at university were women” – Gender bias in the syllabus

The university, like the publishing industry, should widen the kinds of writers that they read to include those who are studying them.

by Becca Inglis. Becca is Scottish PEN’s communications and events officer, and founder, editor and contributing writer of Big Words. You can find her on Twitter at @becca_inglis and @bbigwords

27 out of the 98 writers I studied at university were women. Of those women, only 4 of them were of colour, and that was in a module about postcolonial literature.

You can probably guess which women we studied: Austen. Woolf. Behn. All fantastic women, for sure, but safe. They crop up again and again in conversations about the canon, which we have all already agreed is mostly a boys’ club. Their inclusion felt tokenistic, like they had been crowbarred in as an afterthought in brief acknowledgement of equality and diversity. Notably, they are all white.

Thank god for my staunchly feminist lecturer of post-1945 literature. It was through her that I finally read Meera Syal and discovered the face of a new generation of irreverent fairy-tale writers, Helen Oyeyemi. I sought women writers and Jan handed them to me in her class, but she was a rarity. I wrote my dissertation about Angela Carter, whom I had haphazardly stumbled across in Waterstones. It was the wackily titled Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman that drew me in, not a broad approach to women’s literature from my university. My alma mater did not see fit to teach me about her irreverence towards sexist folk tales. I had to find out for myself.

There is very little data on how much women’s fiction is studied at UK universities. Numbers in other fields however show a distinct gender gap in the number of women cited. In 2013, sociology professor Kieran Healy stated that “out of all recent citations in four prestigious philosophy journals, female authors comprise just 3.6 percent of the total.” In the same year a study by B.F. Walter, Daniel Maliniak, and Ryan Powers found that women received 0.7 citations to every 1 by a male academic. Men are more likely to cite themselves, and women do not cite themselves enough. Part of this is due to low numbers of women in academic faculties. At the time of both studies 1 in 5 professors in the UK were female, with numbers falling to 1 in 10 at some institutions. To combat this gender disparity, Walter suggests that women only identify themselves by their initials when they submit to journals. To make it in an academic world, women must effectively erase their gender.

Even in secondary school exams, women are few and far between. In the Scottish National 5 Literature syllabus, 33% of recommended Scottish texts are by women. This percentage falls back to 28.6% when students reach Highers. In England, the story gets worse. The Stage writes that out of the 21 writers featured on AQA, Edexcel, and OCR’s list of set texts, only three of those are women. Jessica Swale has responded to this, saying that “When I was at school I assumed Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker were the only female playwrights – they were the only women ever spoken about, and yet I could have written you a list of 50 famous male writers”.

You could argue that up until the twentieth-century, women had relatively little opportunity to write. Like academics today, their neglect now could be due to their absence before. Yet Virginia Woolf herself questioned this, suggesting that “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman”. Women have been writing for centuries. The first autobiography in the English language was written by Marjorie Kemp back in the 1400s. ?’ishah bint Y?suf al-B???niyyah was an early Medieval Islamic mystic writer, and The Encyclopedia of Islam proposes that she ‘composed more works in Arabic than any other woman prior to the twentieth century’. Even John Milton’s Paradise Lost was transcribed by his daughter. Women have always been there, often writing, but their voices have been suppressed and ignored.

Another argument is that men prefer to read books written by men. This has been said time and time again to explain the publishing industry’s bias towards male writers. This, again, is a flimsy argument. For one thing, UCAS reports that 70% of European Literature courses are currently made up of female students. My own English Literature course had something like 300 women to 30 men. Why are we pandering to male-centric reading habits when there were so many more girls on the course? Would it not do male readers some good to step out of their comfort zone and read more writing by women? If books are important because they increase empathy, we should all be encouraged to read outside of our own experience. Maybe social activist groups would gain more allies if more of us read beyond our own demographic.

The figures speak for themselves. Women writers are being very definitively neglected: in publishing, in reviews, and in the university. The US group VIDA has done some invaluable work analysing the inclusion of female writers in literary magazines. As in academia, women writers are disproportionately underrepresented. In 2014 VIDA found that 27% of writers published in The Times Literary Supplement were women, whilst numbers at The Paris Review regressed by 11% from 2013. Women of colour could not even be factored in; VIDA was not able to collect enough data, which they see as directly related to the USA’s history of racial discrimination.

These numbers are starting to improve. According to VIDA, “in 2014, Colorado Review published 51 percent women overall, Crab Orchard published 57 percent women overall and Gettysburg Review 52 percent women”. If VIDA continues to research the issue of race, perhaps the next review will even be able to address the lack of diversity in women being published.

If more and more women writers are getting recognised, then it could only be a matter of time before the numbers are balanced on university syllabi. However, I would propose that we start to make those changes now. If we are now making moves to make the industry more inclusive to women, surely part of that is recognizing their contribution to literature throughout history. The university, like the publishing industry, should widen the kinds of writers that they read to include those who are studying them.

Photo by Stewart Butterfield, 2006. Creative Commons via Flickr