Australia’s two national newspapers are the most likely to review books by men, instead of those by women.

The finding comes from the third year of the Stella Count — a study coordinated by the Stella Prize, which was formed in 2011 to promote women’s writing after several years where Australia’s premier literary award, the Miles Franklin prize, featured few female authors on its shortlist. Part of the thinking behind the Stella Prize was that women’s writing wasn’t given the coverage in the media, the recognition in awards, and the broad recognition that comes from being included on school curricula. So a prize for women’s writing was born, and every year since, its volunteers have been scouring the book review sections of the country’s major newspapers and magazines to nut out the gender split of books reviewed.

What they found was unsurprising — books by women are far less likely, on average, to be reviewed in the pages of Australia’s leading newspapers and magazines. And the figures are worse than they seem, Stella Prize executive director Aviva Tuffield told Crikey, because books by men were frequently reviewed at far greater depth and prominence than books by women.

On a raw count of books reviewed, The Australian Financial Review got the worst result. It actually went backwards, in that in 2012 80% of its reviews were of books by men, compared to 2013, where that figure was 85%.

The Weekend Australian had the next most skewed result. After 70% of its reviews covered books by men in 2012, that figure fell to 65% in 2013.

In magazines, both The Monthly and the Australian Book Review significantly improved their figures. The Monthly’s review pages were 67% male in 2012, but that fell to 59% in 2013, while the Australian Book Review went from 59% to 53% male book authors reviewed.

Several newspapers achieved a roughly even gender split. These included The Sunday Age, The Advertiser, and the Sunday Tasmanian, which all had a review split at 51% (books by men) and 49% (books by women).

Asked whether she made a conscious choice to include reviews of books by women, The Advertiser‘s books editor Deborah Bogle told Crikey she didn’t, though she was pleased with the result. “The fact that we’ve performed so well on this front perhaps owes something to the fact that in our main review we focus mostly on Australian fiction, and there’s a great deal of very good novels being written by Australian women.”

Bogle adds that most of her reviewers are also women, which again wasn’t a conscious decision but seems to have been the way things turned out. “My female contributors seem to get through the books faster than the men. That’s probably a reflection of the wider world — women are the book buyers, the members of reading groups and the bulk of the audience at literary festivals,” she said.

The data suggests this might be a big part of why papers like The Advertiser achieved a nearly equal gender ratio. For the first time this year, the Stella Count looked at the bylines of the reviewers as well as the gender of authors reviewed, and found male reviewers were more likely to review books by men. Similarly, female reviewers tended to review books by women (although not to the same extent that male reviewers preferred books by men).

At The Courier-Mail (with a review split of 59% books by men, and 41% books by women) 41% of the reviews were written by men. And these male reviewers collectively reviewed books by men 83% of the time. It was a similar story at The Daily Telegraph, 39% of their reviews were written by men, but of those reviews, 78% were of books by male writers.

Newspapers with predominantly male reviewers tended to be those more likely to review books by men — the AFR had 78% of reviews written by men, while at the Weekend Oz the figure was 71%.

The role of genre wasn’t one assessed by the Stella Count, but it may be another factor in why some newspapers have a wider gender split than others. The AFR’s book review pages, for example, feature a lot of non-fiction, and that may lead to the male-heavy slant. “Men and women often write about different things, and things like military history and business are often prioritised by non-fiction reviewers,” Tuffield said. But she says that labelling has a part to play in this too. “When men write about family life, we call it literary fiction. When women do, it’s called women’s literature, even if it’s highly political.”

Tuffield says she doubts book editors set out with an intention to marginalise women’s writing. Instead, she says, most book pages work on pitches — reviewers offer to review books they’re interested in, and that has a greater impact on which ones get covered than any particular designs. From a young age, she says, men are encouraged to read books about (and often by) men, and so it’s no wonder unconscious bias leads them to replicate this behaviour into adulthood. “But if women aren’t getting big reviews, people aren’t finding and buying their books.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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