Book Prizes, Gender and Personality

The long-list for the Royal Society Winton Book Prize was announced last week which, if the publishers blurbs listed in the write-up in the Guardian are to be believed, represent a real cornucopia of delightful reading. As it happens, I am in the middle of reading one of the long-listed books at the moment (Life’s Ratchet by Peter Hoffman) and have already ticked another one off the list (Tim Birkhead‘s Bird Sense). I am keen to get my hands on a third book on the list, Frances Ashcroft‘s book The Spark of Life  too, having read her previous Life at the Extremes some time ago and enjoyed it a lot. Additionally, Frances and I share a lot in common: from being contemporaries at Girton College all those years ago, to being elected to the Royal Society the same year and having both won one of the L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science Laureates.

The Guardian write-up I mention above sparked some comments on Twitter. I think it was Stephen Curry who started it off, remarking that, despite the judges being predominantly female, there was a distinct lack of women on the long-list. In fact, Frances Ashcroft is the only woman on the 18-strong long-list. This list will be whittled down to a shortlist of 6 in the autumn before the final winner is announced. The odds must be that there will be a male winner at the end of the day, as has happened for every one of the last 24 years as far as I can see, having cast my eye over all the previous winners of the Book Prize  (which has gone under various names since it was first set up in 1989), with the exception of a joint husband-and-wife team which won. A 2011 article considered this theme too and, at that point, claimed that there had only been 9 women overall on the 144 authors on the shortlists (6 each year).

GrrlScientist, who had written the Guardian piece and who had been on one of the reading panels, entered the Twitter-fray saying that she simply didn’t notice the gender of the author as she read – no more had I noticed the gender distribution when reading the list of nominated books. But will every reader behave like that?  Perhaps there is a bias by gender about which submitted proposals are accepted for publication (in which case, blame the publishers). Or maybe the publishers are negligent in submitting books written by women for the prize (in which case, also blame the publishers). It’s impossible to tell. Uta Frith, chair of this year’s judging panel, said (again on Twitter) that there were 18 books submitted which had been written by women out of a total of 112. At that rate the women appear to have been under-represented on the long-list: if simple odds had been at play 2 female-authored books might have been expected to feature. That of course immediately shows us that we are back in the land of fluctuations and noise, where one book more or less makes a big difference: we shouldn’t draw any strong conclusions from the low numbers of women on the list.

While this discussion was going on over Twitter, I ventured to suggest that maybe the Royal Society’s Young People’s’s book prize would have a different distribution of female authors. My instinct – or perhaps lazy stereotyping further influenced by the  knowledge that Frances Balkwill had won this prize some years ago – told me that might be likely. I have no statistics on the long- or short-list gender distribution, but out of the 27 winners on the Royal Society website I can identify 9 with female authors, although a number of the books had more than one author listed and the number of women represented is actually higher (some, no doubt, illustrators).  So I am assuming this bears out my suspicion that women are more likely to write books (or at least books which get published and/or submitted for consideration) for children than adults. Of course, as with Frances Ashcroft, not to mention other stand-out writers such as Rebecca Skloot (she of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks fame) or Lisa Randall, whose book Knocking on Heaven’s Door I reviewed a couple of years ago , there are some stunning female popular science writers out there. I hope that soon one of them will be accorded the accolade of the Winton Prize; I am sure it is just a matter of time, but it does no harm to pause a moment and wonder why this hasn’t happened so far.

My last post was about EO Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist. In it he said something (well many things, but let me just pick up on one) that I thought was odd at the time and, reflecting on the (extremely limited number of) books I have read on the long-list emphasises that he wasn’t entirely accurate in what he said. To quote

Few scientists write memoirs, and among those who do, even fewer are willing disclose the emotions, urges, idols and teachers that brought them into their scientific careers….a leathery, just-the -facts style confines most personal accounts of scientific discovery, and a good story often comes out reticent and dull.

Is this really true? It stuck out to me as not describing many of the books I’ve read and, looking at the Winton list, it certainly isn’t true of either the Birkhead or Hoffman books I alluded to above. Unfortunately I’ve lent my copy of The Sense of Birds (as well as its even more impressive predecessor The Wisdom of Birds, which I discussed a while back) to family members so I can’t quote from them. However, I have a distinct memory of Birkhead commenting on his lifelong affection for guillemots, the interesting places he has had to go to study them and other species, overall conveying a strong sense of personal identity along with his motivations (‘urges’, to use White’s word if you prefer) and his emotions on returning to some much-studied, much-loved seabird colony.

As I’m still in the middle of reading Life’s Ratchet, it is easier for me to pull out a statement to contradict that paragraph of Wilson’s above. Hoffman, it turns out, was a PhD student of John Pethica‘s.  John is currently the Physical Secretary of the Royal Society, in which role I interact with him quite a bit, but we go back a long way: once upon a time he and I were students together in the Cambridge physics class. Of John, his teacher, the sort of person Wilson claims doesn’t get a mention in books, Hoffman says:

John is an easygoing person but an exacting scientist. When I visited Oxford for my interview, an envelope with instructions was waiting for me at the hotel. John had written “Dr Peter Hoffman, Esq” on the envelope. I didn’t know that I was an Esquire, but it showed John’s respect for everybody, even a lowly postdoc looking for a job. When my wife and I finally arrived a few months later, it was the beginning of summer. John typically disappeared for extended periods, only to reappear with a bagful of new idea. After John’s return from his mysterious summer travels, I got into one of the typical – as I soon realised – conversations with him. These conversations always involved new ideas, connections and recent publications. Listening to John I would often be reduced to nodding and saying “aha, yeah ,mmmh” only to scramble back to the office to look up the papers he was talking about.

I think this paragraph provides an excellent lightning pen-sketch of the man, bringing in a little of the personal including how Hoffman interacted with his supervisor. Nor do I think such stories are that unusual. Briefly I considered whether this might be a new trend for the personal to appear in science books, possibly something not reflected in books of the past that Wilson would have grown up with. A moment’s thought of the other book I’m currently reading (a bad habit of mine, to have more than one book on the go simultaneously I know) showed me this is wrong. The book I’m reading is a composite republication of Island Farm (Published 1943 and Island Years (1940) by Sir Frank Fraser Darling, one of the early practitioners of ecology, who made the study of animals (red deer and grey seals notably) in their West Highland habitats his own. These two books, these memoirs, are written in an immensely personal style, with great lyricism and enthusiasm, demonstrating his abiding love for the islands he made his own (in all senses). Not for him any leathery, dry style. If you have any interest in natural history and/or the Western Isles, I’d strongly recommend these classic texts.

No new trend to get personal in science books and memoirs then. And some more fascinating books on that Winton long-list into which I aim to get my teeth soon.


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5 Responses to Book Prizes, Gender and Personality

  1. Bob O'H says:

    GrrlScientist, who had written the Guardian piece and who had been on one of the reading panels,

    Small correction: Grrl was on the panel for the children’s prize. She just wants to be on the panel for the Winton prize.

    She was sent all of the nominees for the children’s prize, so we can almost check their gender distribution: the problem is that my brother now has some of the books (he actually has children: we just have parrots).

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    I don’t think that it got on to the Royal Society long list when it was first published, but I am currently reading “The Price of Altruism” by Oren Harman, which is a biography of George Price. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is not already familiar with his work.

  3. i’ve asked for the gender stats for all winton prize nominees throughout the years from the royal society. haven’t heard back from them, nor do i know whether they even keep track of such information (i think they mentioned to me when i was there a few weeks ago that they do not).

    i suspect there are several factors at play with regards to the numbers of female science writers being shortlisted for the Winton Prize: i think the bottleneck exists at the publisher’s level. first, there are fewer female science writers overall, and i think that fewer female science writers get book contracts from publishers and out of all the female-authored science books that are published each year, fewer are nominated by the publishers for the winton prize. but this is mere speculation on my part.

    some books make gender an important part of the story — i am thinking specifically about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “nickel and dimed” — and this does colour my view of what i am reading. so for this reason, and as you noted above, i do not consciously think about the author’s identity or gender when reading and reviewing a book. my knowledge of the author is of course subconscious, but my primary goal is to experience the book as a science-savvy reader would do. only after i’ve finished it and am writing the review do i invest time into investigating who the author is — digging up bios, other books they’ve written, positions they’ve held and their public speaking engagements.

    however, since you mention the gender of children’s book authors, i do have some idea of the Royal Society’s young people’s book prize nominees’ genders for 2013, since i read all of those books at least once each. the incomplete gender list is M: 22; F: 4; M&M: 3; F&M: 3 (this list is incomplete since, as bob o’h mentions above, some books were already given to his brother’s kids). heavily biased towards male authors, as you can plainly see, however the underlying reason for that bias is subject to speculation.

    the judges for the 2013 royal society’s young people’s book prize were comprised of half female and half male panelists, and was chaired by a man. never in our discussions of the nominated books was the author’s gender mentioned nor even alluded to, nor was it ever a point of discussion whether a particular book was targeted primarily to boys or to girls. our shortlist choices were all written by men, with one exception where the book was co-authored by a husband-wife team.

  4. Uta Frith says:

    How much should you take account of pre-existing bias when judging the books – as opposed to the sheer capture by a text never before encountered? Having judges from very different backgrounds neutralises bias to some extent, and not having a vague sense of balance between different fields of science. I personally was careful not to be influenced in favour of anything neuroscience or psychology, nor authors I knew personally, nor those who are simply famous, nor indeed authors who are women. Favouring a book on the grounds that the author was a woman would have felt distinctly improper. Instead, like Grrlscientist I found it easy to cultivate a lack of awareness of author characteristics. Still, the final longlist of 12 was difficult to arrive at. All the judges had championed some favourite(s) that were in the end not included. If we had had a slightly longer longlist, the gender balance would have looked different, but would such a difference be statistically significant, given the imbalance in the submissions received?

  5. Sounds like a fascinating research project for someone, looking into publisher and media bottlenecks and the biases therewith. Presumably these gatekeepers select at least in part for ‘display’ (e.g. all those gorgeous pictures in the Birkhead book), a strong, clear, easily summarised core thesis (for easy reporting), an attractive topic (what’s in fashion?), and perhaps for good writing, though my impression is that comes some way behind.

    The problem being, as many have pointed out, that display, strong clear statements, and what’s hot in science are not gender-neutral. Being aware that there may be bias doesn’t prevent bias from doing its work.

    Do the prize judges go for similar features, or do they prioritize the rigour, quality and solidity of the science as well/more?

    As usual with prizes, there’s no real clarity on what ‘best’ actually means. If the criteria were clearer, that might help prevent these recurring discussions!