Women under-represented, reading the Orange shortlist

// 23 April 2010

Women are drastically under-represented in bookshops, galleries, theatres, lecture series, Bidisha says in The Guardian, making the case in her usual fantastic style.

Events organisers, editors in broadcasting and the media, radio and TV producers, commissioners and jurors. They are male and female, they probably don’t realise they’re doing it, but they don’t mind. They’re fine with a virtually woman-free world.

To witness femicide in action, go to the town of Hay this May. At the same time as the annual book festival is an unrelated philosophy festival called How The Light Gets In. There are 25 debates covering broad themes such as evolution, the urban space, creativity, violence and privacy. All but two of these events are male-dominated. Eight are men-only, opening with “Being Human in the 21st century.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Four white men are going to discuss all the facets of the human experience. Thirteen discussions have just one woman and either four or three men, and one has one woman and two men. One event is a screening of a guy’s film. Two talks have two men and two women. And that’s it. I was scheduled to attend and was hugely relieved when other obligations meant I had to drop out. I know from experience that female participation in events that massively underrepresent women does not change anything. Year on year the ratio stays the same. How The Light Gets In gives 56 different men the opportunity to speak. It offers the same opportunity to just 11 women. Alongside the talks are evening events featuring a well-chosen and original roster of musicians, DJs and comedians. The gender balance here is markedly better. Did two different people organise these two sides of the festival? Perhaps women are considered fine as light entertainment, but unnecessary when it comes to the serious stuff.

Bidisha says, very understandably, that she no longer feels like attending as a token woman on panels dominated by men. She notes that this drastic underrepresentation continues, despite the fact that women “equal or outnumber men as attendees of arts festivals, concerts, readings, discussions and debates, and as arts and humanities students at university. Women write, read, edit and publicise more fiction than men. Women make up the majority of executive, PR and organisational staff in arts and cultural institutions. Women’s ticket revenue, licence fees, book purchases and entrance fees are being used to fund events at which women artists and thinkers are marginalised with breathtaking obviousness.”

So, in that spirit, here is the shortlist for the Orange Prize this year:


  • Rosie Allison – The Very Thought of You (Alma Books)
  • Barbara Kingsolver – The Lacuna (Faber)
  • Attica Locke – Black Water Rising (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate)
  • Lorrie Moore – The Gate at the Stairs (Faber)
  • Monique Roffey – The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Simon & Schuster)

My plan is to read the whole shortlist, preferably before the winner is announced – although Wolf Hall is huge, so I may not make it! I’ve stolen this idea from Kirsty at Other Stories, who is trying to read the long-list. Cath Elliot’s giving it a go as well.

Comments From You

sianmarie // Posted 23 April 2010 at 1:43 pm

great article from bidisha.

i was on radio 5 live with holly combe last night and was amazed at the fact that on the panel there were 5 men, 1 woman and a male presenter, and that bar Theresa May and a woman from Plaid Cymru who’s name i didn’t catch (sorry) all the interviwees were male. altho women in the studio audience (me included) got to speak, there were more men than women (altho, we were noisy articulate women so we did get to speak up).

i think because so many events like this that i attend are feminist, pro woman events i have ended up in a little bit of a bubble about representation. i know theoretically the massive problems, but in previous conferences or presentations i’ve attended, it hasn’t happened to *me*.

it is so prevalent and so completely entrenched, from the discussions we’ve had previously about comedy shows, to, as bidisha points out, panels on cultural establishments. so thank god for the orange prize. maybe we need one for art, music and film as well? until, that long off distant day, when the turner, mercury, oscars, baftas and booker are ALL representative.

My name is Jose // Posted 23 April 2010 at 5:20 pm

Serious question here but it’s more to do with grass roots events than flagship ones like has been mentioned.

Do people here think it’s true there’s a significant reluctance of women, in general, to organize and initiate cultural events?

I speak as someone who arranges music events, I probably know most of the people who run similar events within my area (Merseyside) and I can count the amount of women who’ve started up their own nights on one hand.

I know a few women who are involved as such (and it is a few) but they mainly operate in a kind of hired gun capacity ( i.e lighting, setdesign, etc, etc).

I do as much as I can to get more women involved (with regards to acts) but at the end of the day, I’m a male music geek, who generally knows more male music geeks than female ones, so I end up booking more men than women.

I don’t think I operate within a sexist culture, most male musos/promotors/venue owners are happy to see more women get involved, I really try to encourage it.

It’s always faintly depressing to see uniform block of men running events (looking much like me) but unless more women take up the initiative then that’s how it’s always going to be.

gadgetgal // Posted 23 April 2010 at 8:09 pm

Hi My name is Jose – weirdly enough my husband organises music events in the Merseyside area too, and I know what you mean by very few women organising nights there! Seeing it from a woman’s perspective I’d have to say there probably is a bit of a reluctance for women to organise events.

I’d say it’s partly the background they come from – most of the guys I know in this area are brought into the music scene through their dads and also the people they knock about with at school, learning instruments and having a kind of shared experience, which not only gives them more confidence at sharing it with even more people, but they grow up knowing a lot of people they eventually end up working with. Most of the women I know in this area tend to have to do things in a more solo way, usually singing and learning instruments on their own. This cuts them off from the resource of “knowing the right people” very early on, and it’s much more difficult to break into it later. Not impossible, but again I’d have to say that the confidence people gain from being listened to early on helps a lot, and that’s something a lot of women miss out on.

You’re then in a situation where you would have to prove yourself to all these people who know each other but don’t know you, and that can be daunting for anyone, but even more so for a lot of women, because we usually end up with the burden of proof if we try to take part in a male-dominated field. It’s like the old football adage, where a bloke can say he likes football and all the other blokes nod their heads, but a girl says she likes football and gets asked to explain the offside rule! Sometimes it just seems like too much work because whatever a guy does you end up having to do twice as much to achieve the same results. Very off-putting, and just taking the initiative doesn’t stop that from being so! So even though I believe you when you say you’d like more women there and that you personally do what you can to encourage it, I can see why they might avoid it – they might just presume that it would be the same thing again, where a lot of hard work doesn’t seem to pay off as much for them.

As for whether or not the culture itself is sexist I’d have to say that it is a little (although again, not intentionally on your part). Not just because a lot of girls can be excluded at such an early age, but also because it’s a culture already full of men, who like a lot of the same kinds of music and events as the other men they work with. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying me because I like a lot of the music on the scene right now, and I LOVE watching live bands, but a lot of women I know are interested in other kinds of music/art/film/theatre that would just never be booked. That’s why a lot of the venues I go to to watch bands are mainly filled with men. You’re right that more women organising events would help, but I know a lot of pub and club owners around here who would be hesitant to let them organise anything other than an Ann Summers party, let alone book a few bands or put on a play!

What’s the solution? Well, like you said, women do need to try and take the initiative where they can to break into the scene. But I still think a big cultural shift has to happen before any real change comes about – pubs and clubs have to stop just “accommodating” women into their overwhelmingly male driven nights, and maybe instead learn to cater to them. The upsurge in revenues would be certain to interest them (we do make up over 50% of the population, I’m sure they want our money too!)!

I’m hopeful though – most of the men I know think similarly to you, they’d actually like to see more women taking part, so the encouragement is there. We just need to get the womanpower there too!

Hazel // Posted 23 April 2010 at 9:09 pm

On a similar note, I realised early in the latest run of The Culture Show that after the first show which was presented by Verity Sharp, the show was exclusively presented by a man and the vast majority of the reporters were men (I can only think of Miranda Sawyer and Clemency Burton-Hill for the distaff side) and that each week I kept hoping against hope that the The Culture Show might surprise me but no.

The majority of the artists featured were also men: Siri Hustvedt and Jenny Holzer notable exclusions.

What makes it more galling is that the editor and the executive producers of the show are women.

Mercy // Posted 25 April 2010 at 8:48 pm

There was a debate on a similar theme when the Leeds Salon organised a debate following the censorship of one of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems from the school syllabus after a complaint by a female exam grader. The debate involved a panel of 5 men. Yep, a woman’s poem triggered the debate but only men could debate this! Complaints were made but the organisers couldn’t get their head round the idea there was anything wrong (full story http://emmalee1.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/this-could-have-been-a-debate-about-education-for-leisure/).

As for women organising events: when I was childless I used to. Now I have to combine parenthood, a day job and writing, it’s not just possible.

I used to write music reviews for a local magazine and was forever asking the (male) editor to produce press passes. He couldn’t understand why I wanted one. I had explain that when his other (male) writers turned up and bagged a free pass into the gig, the organisers accepted they were reviewing. When I turned up, even with a copy of the magazine with my byline in, there was an assumption I was a groupie and merely trying to get backstage. I was often the only woman at a gig, which could be intimidating. I also had to tolerate one male manager spending the whole gig chatting me up which kind of got in the way of my trying to review the gig.

There’s an underlying Catch-22 too: women don’t see women organising or attending such events so they tend to self-censor and not turn up.

There’s also a problem in that women will review books by men and women but men tend to only review books by men. If you look at any newspaper books pages, reviews of books by men outnumber reviews of books by women by 2 to 1. Excuses put forward include “fewer women write the kind of books that get reviewed”, “editors can only commission reviews of what they get send (newspapers get 400+ books a week, surely they can find some written by women?), critics don’t bother with commercially successful novels (which tend to be written by women).

Hannah // Posted 27 April 2010 at 11:57 am

The organiser posted a response to Bidisha’s article on CiF, it’s worth a read.


Apparently the reason there aren’t very many women is because only 1/6 of the women approached to speak accepted the invitation, whereas nearly all of the men did. She also points out the much higher proportion of men in UK philosophy departments, so with that in mind it would be hard to have equal numbers of women.

Those of us who are into philosophy will know there has always been an incredible gender bias in the field, that, essentially, up until a bunch of the male philosophers went away and got killed in the world wars and people like Elizabeth Anscombe and Phillippa Foot were able to get heard, it was always men deciding the big issues in philosophy. I studied philosophy at university and found it frustrating how we were ALWAYS studying men and it was never suggested that we think about what you might describe as ‘meta-philosophy’, the underlying assumptions and biases of the whole field (I guess analytic types probably dismiss such thoughts as fuzzy Continental nonsense).

The organiser’s seem good and she mentions a bunch of fantastic female philosophers who are speaking. Although Bidisha wouldn’t have known exactly how many women were approached, I do think she is being overly sensitive here and making accusations of sexism before thinking about it carefully and making sure she is in possession of all the facts.

Kristin // Posted 28 April 2010 at 11:33 am

Brilliant article by Bidisha, thanks for posting about it. I seem to remember that not so long ago (think the TFW might have posted about that too) some male author, I think his name was Tim something, was ranting about the Orange Prize, saying it was discrimination against menz and unnecessary anyway because the publishing industry was already female dominated.


Hannah // Posted 28 April 2010 at 7:06 pm

(Oops, just noticed a typo in the last sentence of my post, I meant ‘the organiser’s intentions seem good’)

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