How Gender Equality Became The Norm In The Australian Book Industry

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Did you know gender equality is finally becoming the norm in the book world in Australia? More than half of the books reviewed in Australian publications in 2020 were by female authors, a space that is usually taken up by male authors, despite the fact that women famously make up two thirds of the author population in Australia.

A Short History On Australian Female Writers

While it might come as a complete shock, the early 20th century was a real golden period for female novelists in Australia. Sure gendered attitudes in the workforce, marriage, and women’s day-to-day lives made times pretty abysmal. But women were producing some of the biggest cult classics of Australian literature.

They had to adopt a bunch of different strategies to be taken seriously as authors.

And for women of colour this was even more difficult in 1900s Australia.

White women found sneaky ways to get their work published and taken seriously.

Like the legendary Miles Franklin, who chose to go by her more masculine-sounding middle name Miles, rather than her first name Stella because she believed she would be more successful in being published. And she was right. Feminist cult classic My Brilliant Career went on to garner immediate critical acclaim, despite the fact that Franklin was only 19 when she wrote it and a woman.

The tactic of a pseudonym was also what Henry Handel Richardson swore by whose real name was Ethel. Richardson famously said in 1940 that there was a general belief with which a woman’s work could be distinguished from a man’s, and she wanted to try out the truth of the assertion. And boy did she prove them wrong.

She went on to become one of the most recognised Australian authors of her time.

Before all this though Australian journals like The Dawn, which was run by Louisa Lawson AKA pen name Dora Falconer, were already breaking ground. Produced by an all-women team of editors and printers The Dawn went on to become the official publication The Australian Federation of Women Voters.

It wasn’t until later generations that women started using their real names. Many still then many experienced setbacks from Australian publishers and had to take their work overseas. Diverse voices were scarce in Australian literature despite Indigenous women being the traditional and experienced storytellers.

Gender Assumptions Today

Now every year a whopping 22,500 new book titles are published in Australia and book reviews are still a huge way of promoting new titles, even if you’re like me and generally go off friend’s Instagram or Goodreads recommendations.

Women make up 65% of Australian writers, 77% of employees in Australian publishing, and 61% of “frequent readers”, which are frankly statistics that should be quoted more.

With such great stats comes the expectation that most book reviews should be about female authors. But that just hasn’t been the case up until now.

There’s been a long misconception that men are only interested in reading books by men, and women vice versa. Books written by men usually attract longer reviews — which means more market recognition and prominent critics promoting your work. This has a ripple effect of women authors being less likely to be called upon as experts in their field, moreso if it’s in the space of politics and sports.

Gender Shifts

The Stella Count, an initiative with The Stella Prize, the national prize for female writing, started tracking gender bias among female author representation back in 2012 and found substantial shifts.

Between 2011 and 2020, The Monthly’s representation of women skyrocketed from 26% to 56%, The Age went from 35% to 55%, and Brisbane’s Courier-Mail from 43% to 54%.

But why?

Lecturers Julieanne Lamond and Melinda Harvey, alongside Stella, found that when they started presenting the early dire stats to literary editors, the common reaction was one of shock.

But another jab was that men write more books on subjects worth reviewing, which is a bias that just wouldn’t stand today.