girlie jones (girliejones) wrote,
girlie jones

Breaking through the glass ceiling of science fiction

Aspects of the gender disparity in SF discussion have been on my mind. Several comments were made to the effect that it was "the yearly discussion on feminism in SF". It was at that point that I realised two things that seemed inmportant.

Firstly, if it is genuinely the case that there is only on allocated spot per year for this discourse - or even if that's how many people saw it - then, the issue of gender disparity never had hopes of being properly addressed and the situation improved.

Secondly, as a critic, commentator and reviewer, part of my role is to make sure this issue is not put on the backburner for the rest of the year. As a female reader and fan, I view SF through female eyes and female experience. "Feminism in SF" is not something I think about only once a year. It's what I bring to fandom every single day. It's one of the things that female fans, artists, readers, writers, editors, publishers and consumers bring to fandom as a whole. And yet, there are parts of fandom that remain unequal, disparate. And over the coming year, I hope to explore these individually.

Recently, a friend of mine drew my attention to the Aussiecon 4 Guests of Honour. "Does that strike you," she said, "to be a bit overly male? Am I being too sensitive?"
"Hmmm," says I as I clicked over to the site, "three guests, all men. Blue and white site colours. Yeah, I guess that is quite masculine." And after I thought about it a bit, I realised that I didn't actually know who the guests were, as in I hadn't taken in the information, because I had assumed that I wasn't the target audience. And that I was actually excited about going to Aussiecon in order to meet people, to see the Dealers Room and to see what publishing vibe there would be.

It wasn't until that moment that I realised that I had just assumed that I was not the target audience. I'm a young woman. There's not really all that much I think I would have in common with older, white men. It just never occurred to me that Guests of Honour were chosen to influence my decision about attending. I always assumed I was taken as periphery. And perhaps I am.

So after my friend raised the question - "Does this bother you?" I went on a bit of a learning expedition. And what I learned was really quite sobering.

According to Camille Bacon-Smith in Science Fiction Culture (2000), Worldcon can attract up to 8400 attendees [EDIT: average is about 5500], half of which are women. A typical Worldcon will have 3 to 5 Guests of Honour. The "tradition" that guides the selection of Guests of Honour is that the person should have been in the field for a long time, generally not less than 20 years. Some committees probably think more than that. And the GoH should have produced a significant body of work. There are no repeat appearances. And there is a general idea that you don't pick locals.

There are two words in the above paragraph that I find very interesting. The first is the word "tradition". Tradition is something that helps to feel like you belong to a group or a movement. It is the customs and actions that are acceptable or expected. When you know what they are, they make you feel, and enable you to be, included. The question is, is something that is "tradition" the final and only justification for our actions? Does it permit the continuation of actions that may work to exclude a different group of people from being able to belong? Or is it sometimes okay to bend a rule or break a tradition, just a little, in order to be more inclusive?

The second word of course is that of "significant" and the idea that your work can only be significant or important if it has been around for long enough. That kind of thinking seems to work against something that to me is crucial to science fiction - innovation, new ideas, breaking through old boundaries, pushing beyond old school thought and ... well... traditions.

Some facts I gathered from Science Fiction Culture (2000):
- Since 1964, only 12 women have appeared as a guest of honour in any category.
- Juanita Coulson appeared as a fan guest of honour in 1972, but like four other honourees, received the honour as half of a couple, along with her husband.
- Only eight women have been honoured as writer guest of honour since 1939, including Urusla le Guin in 1975 and C J Cherryh in 1998.

Since those facts presumably were accurate until publication of the book in the year 2000, I went hunting round for the stats for the Worldcons of the Twenty-first Century.

In 2001, Esther Friesner was Toastmaster. The other four guests were male.
In 2002, Bjo and John Trimble shared the fan guest slot. The other four guests were male.
In 2003, none of the five guests were female.
In 2004, none of the four guests were female.
In 2005, Jane Yolen was one of five guests (no specification of Writer Guest of Honour).
In 2006, Connie Willis was the Writer Guest of Honour. The three other guests were male.
In 2007, none of the five guests were female.
In 2008, Lois McMaster Bujold was a Guest of Honour along with Kathy Marr and two males. Could this be the one and only gender equity GoH List?
For 2009, Élisabeth Vonarburg is an Invitee d'honneur and Julie Czerneda is Master of Ceremonies. There are seven guests in total and none specified as Writer Guest of Honour.
For 2010 (Aussiecon4), none of the three guests are female.

There has never been an all female Worldcon Guest of Honour list.

I contacted the Aussiecon 4 Chairs to ask about the issue - I know now that there are no more Guests of Honour to be revealed. The three GoHs are male.

I also asked about the issue of all the Aussiecon 4 GoHs being male and was told that, whilst women were not excluded from consideration, many things were taken into account, and gender wasn't one of them. Further, the fact that none are female in this case, was merely "happenstance".

I don't know who was on the Aussiecon 4 committee's list of potential guests. I do not know how many of them were female. I do not know the basis on which they selected guests. I do not know that they didn't extend invitations to women who then declined for whatever reason.

What I do know is the evidence of the gender disparity for Worldcon Guests of Honour is staggering. Presumably the decisions for GoHs are done ad hoc, each year in isolation of any other. However, as a whole it seems like it's bloody hard to get invited as a guest of any kind to Worldcon if you are a woman and near on impossible as a female writer. And I think it's important to start at least talking about this and being aware of the issue.

There are a lot of influences at work here. And not too far away from the main issue is that of the gender disparity in SF publication. If you can't get to SF ToCs, then you can't build a significant body of work over 20 or 30 years and you can't get invited as a GoH to Worldcon. If we don't change or amend the "tradition" of Worldcon GoHs, we will be looking at decades before we can even hope to amend the disparity in invited Guests of Honour.

That's not very progressive for a fandom that loves a genre of fiction that prides itself on looking ever outwards to the future.

Tags: breaking through the glass ceiling of sf, feminism

  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for friends only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →