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CWILA 2012 Count: Revealing gender disparity trends in Canadian book reviews | Part I

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The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) 2012 Count Closing the Gender Gap in Book Review Culture came out this June reporting the numbers of gender disparity in book reviews within the Canadian literary arts community.

This two part series spoke with CWILA Count Manager Judith Scholes and CWILA Board Member and Blog Administrator Erin Wunker and will discuss: (1) how the CWILA develops its methodology and (2) what the 2012 results mean for present and future projects.

"Running a non-sexist publication isn't rocket science."

While this seems pretty true, the gender disparity in the Canadian literary arts scene is still a large multifaceted hurdle yet to be conquered. According to the 2011 CWILA Count results, most Canadian outlets published reviews written by men and books authored by men at a staggering rate.

Altogether, men reviewing male authors composed 44 per cent; women reviewing male authors composed 15 per cent; men reviewing women authors composed 18 per cent; and women reviewing women authors was 23 per cent according to the 2011 numbers.

Women seemed wholly left out of the conversation.

In June, the 2012 Count result reveals that as a whole, the numbers representing women writing reviews have gone up in certain categories and remain stagnant in others.

Women are writing more reviews as a whole (47.80 per cent) and though some organizations are including more female-authored books and diversifying who reviews what, others are falling short and women also still tend to review women-authored books at a high rate of 56.56 per cent whereas men review male-authored books 70.14 per cent.

So, if running a non-sexist publication isn't rocket science, then why is it so hard to run a publication that has equal gender representation?

That question is where we delve into our multifaceted hurdle and dissect how the count is first put together.

Creating process: developing the methodology

Representative gender quality needs to be achieved not only by who is doing the reviewing, but who is authoring those books and who is reviewing which authors. On top of that, questions like "How does a person identity themselves?" "Wait, are there only two genders?!" "What does Canadian mean?" crop up, and, bam! -- you've got a complicated situation.

"The ways in which we collect data for our Count have been the most debated and open-ended part of our work," says CWILA Count Manager Judith Scholes. "CWILA is, after all, concerned with equitable representation, and we make every effort possible not to misrepresent any individual included in our analysis."

The process to develop the methodology is nothing but extensive and rigorous, and transparency and flexibility are paramount to ensuring the move toward "greater inclusivity, sensitivity and responsible representation."

How can something be inclusive if other voices aren't heard? It can't. And that is why CWILA not only commits an intensive research and checking process, but is always open to expanding and redefining their categories.

To break down the methodology, it needs to be tackled in two parts: (1) who is being counted and how they define themselves and (2) what research questions are being asked.

Who is CWILA counting and how do they define themselves?  

Self identity is a complex question that takes an in depth analysis and sensitive and discerning intention to answer. In an increasingly evolving world of identity politics, the two key factors the CWILA Count focus on are probably two of the more complex -- gender and nationality -- because it can be difficult to discern who considers themselves Canadian or who identifies as a women.

Scholes echoes this complicated nature when trying to figure out an authors preference and identity.

"In identifying an author as Canadian," Scholes says,  "we look to author biographies first, either on an author’s website or via their publisher. For clarification purposes we often rely on web searches."

"To ensure inclusivity," Scholes continues, "we record an author as Canadian if they identify as Canadian by birth, choice or residency. In every instance, our data was verified by at least two people working independently."

Tackling the category of gender is always a bit complex because there are many factors at work in this definition. Not everyone fits inside the binary construct of gender -- man and woman -- some choose not to identify as a gender at all and sometimes the information available is conflicting.

CWILA employs a similar strategy as identifying nationality by first looking at the pronouns used by the author in the review and then verifying through interviews or official author biographies.

This year, the CWILA Count included the category of "genderqueer" because, as Scholes notes, "quite simply, we needed an inclusive way to account for authors and reviewers who choose not to identify as either a man or a woman, or who identify as genderqueer."

Scholes mentions that "CWILA's prime mandate is to advocate for women in Canadian critical and literary culture," however, "including the [genderqueer] category enables a more nuanced and representative approach to counting gender in book reviews."

"Our numbers are facts," Scholes states; "they make visible the gender discrimination already felt by many women in the literary arts community. Accounting for the representation of women in critical culture through our annual count of books reviews in Canada is one of the most impactful ways we accomplish this."

Some people have questioned why categories of race and ethnicity are not included within the Count. It is no secret that there is a huge gap in the representation of women of colour in mainstream media in general and that this is an important conversation.

"Methodologically speaking," Scholes says "the challenges associated with responsibly accounting for race and ethnicity in book reviews have not yet been resolved."

Scholes also notes that CWILA is still growing and "continuing to pose and address new questions about who is and who is not represented in Canada’s critical and literary culture, which include questions of race and ethnicity."

In lieu of direct categories on the Count at present, the CWILA plans to publish essays and interviews on the topic in an effort to acknowledge and promote this discussion.

Asking questions: revealing gender dynamic trends in publications  

The variety of questions CWILA poses about how women are being represented in Canadian literary arts are very well thought out. It is not simply "are women reviewing books," but "are women reviewing books?;" "are women authors being reviewed?;" and "who are women reviewing?"

"These variations reflect significantly different research questions, which help us discover less visible and most overlooked gender dynamics in reviewing culture," says Scholes.

The distinctions between these questions are important because they can reveal trends in publications that the editors were not aware they were committing.

"A publication may show impressive gender parity among reviewers and authors, but also exhibit other discouraging trends where, for instance, men are mainly reviewing men," Scholes notes.  "As it turns out, men are reviewing male-authored books 70 per cent of the time, and female-authored books only 30 per cent of the time. Women, on the other hand, are reviewing both almost equally."

It is important to note these differences because an organization wanting to affect changes needs to discover the information and the trends in order to address the problem.

"What does each institution need to focus on? What are they doing well? Discovering these trends is the first step toward addressing the question: Why is this so, and what is the impact? What do such gender trends tell us about the status of women authors, women’s literature and women reviewers in Canadian critical culture?"

CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) is an inclusive national literary organization for people who share feminist values and see the importance of strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape.

Download and view CWILA 2012 Count Methodology and Results Summary.

Learn more and support the CWILA and their mandate to advocate for equal gender representation in Canadian literary arts.

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