Bold interventions can change the game for women, just look at the Stella Prize

Bold interventions can change the game for women, just look at the Stella Prize

Six years ago a small group of women made a bold move: creating the Stella Prize for women’s writing, in order to help combat the gender bias occurring in the literary world. The effects have been fast and far-reaching. Aviva Tuffield shares how bold interventions, right now, will shift the numbers on diversity. 

Last week Julia Gillard was appointed head of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. The Institute aims to hasten progress towards gender equality, recognising that we live in a world in which only 23 per cent of parliamentarians, 26 per cent of news media leaders, 27 per cent of judges, and 15 per cent of corporate board members are women. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, we remain 217 years off gender parity.

Experts agree that many of the barriers to equality are invisible and insidious – unconscious bias, gender stereotyping – and, as a consequence, so much harder to dismantle.

One quick – yet much-disputed – fix is quotas: just mandate the change. Demand that organisations appoint, hire and promote 50/50. Whenever quotas are discussed opponents clamour about the importance of ‘merit’ as if old boys’ networks and unconscious bias don’t exist. On the contrary, quotas are a way of bringing women’s merit out into the open, and have been shown to have ongoing impacts in terms of providing role models and shifting societal attitudes.

But how else can you speed up the pace of progress towards gender equality – especially in cultural areas where artists are self-employed and quotas are less relevant?

In the field that I know best, the literary world, a group of women (myself among them) decided in 2012 to take a bold step and establish a major literary prize for Australian women writers – the Stella Prize – in order to combat the gender bias we knew existed. Hard data proved that women writers were underrepresented in three key areas: as winners of the major literary prizes; as authors of the books that received the most review and media coverage; and as authors of the books on the school curriculum.

We knew much of this inequality arose from unconscious bias: we didn’t think that judging panels or curriculum advisory boards – which were always composed of men and women – sat in their meetings and said ‘books by women under the table … right, what’s left?’ Literary value is a cultural construct, as are our expectations of what men and women are good at: that’s why ‘blind’ orchestra auditions and CV assessments yield such different results to what happens when faces and names are attached.

But unconscious bias has serious symbolic and material effects. In the literary world, the books that win the major prizes shape our culture and our national identity and form the canon that we teach the next generation, and so who wins prizes, gets reviewed and is taught in schools sends clear messages about whose voices, whose stories and whose experiences are most important.

In material terms, earning a living as a writer is pretty tough in Australia. Currently the average annual salary that authors earn from their writing is $10,900. Prize money – $50,000 in the case of the Stella Prize – is a significant additional income to a writer, as is the boost to sales. Having your book added to the school curriculum is also an important generator of increased sales and income.

In establishing the Stella Prize – which reclaimed Stella ‘Miles’ Franklin’s first name – the founders aimed to celebrate Australian women’s contribution to literature and shine a light on all the talented female authors who were being overlooked. We had high hopes about the impact it could have – but only time would bear out our expectations.

Six years on, what has amazed us is how fast and far-reaching the effects have been.

Not only have women – obviously – won the Stella Prize for the past five years, they are now winning more prizes generally. The Miles Franklin Literary Award (established by a bequest in Stella Franklin’s will) had been won only 14 times by a woman in 55 years when Stella was founded. In the past 5 years, 4 of 5 winners have been women and 17 of the 25 shortlistees, with the first-ever all-female shortlist in 2013. Moreover this trend is evident across all major prizes. And women writers are being added to school curricula: the VCE English curriculum now has gender parity in terms of authors listed as opposed to 68.5 per cent of the books being by men back in 2014.

Moreover, it’s not just that women are winning the prizes, it’s that the ‘kinds’ of books that are now being considered of the ‘highest literary merit’ has shifted. Novels focusing on contemporary family life or relationships – using those as microcosms for society at large – and often with female and even child protagonists are now taking out the honours.

And the influence of Stella is experienced not just by those women winning prizes but across the entire literary landscape. When Stella started many people told me that they didn’t realise there were so many good women writers in Australia – and especially writers of nonfiction (as Stella is for fiction and nonfiction books): what Stella had done was direct a spotlight on them – via longlists and shortlists – carving out a space in which women writers could shine.

Similarly heartening for me is when female writers who weren’t even longlisted or shortlisted in a particular year tell me that they feel their work is being taken more seriously, that the Stella Prize is elevating Australian women writers across the board.

Furthermore these impacts have ongoing effects for the future of women’s writing: the concept of ‘stereotype threat’ occurs when people don’t think they’re going to do well – on a test, in prizes, in a job interview – and this becomes self-fulfilling. For example, when girls are told they’re not good at maths, they often underperform. If female authors see other women winning prizes and thus have role models, they produce better art now. Thus there are, I would argue, more women writing excellent books thanks to the existence of Stella, books that will go on to win prizes because the role models and the recognition is there.

As with quotas, Stella’s influence goes much further than the immediate appointees – or, in this case, prizewinners. The effects ripple outwards and the landscape changes: role models are provided, unconscious bias is dismantled, stereotype threats are banished.

Does this mean Stella’s job is done? Far from it. Firstly, there is work to be done in terms of diversity and extending Stella’s benefits to all women writers. Secondly, the #metoo movement has proved that there are still many ways in which even when women do speak – or write – up, their voices are not listened to and so we need to shift the power structures of our patriarchal society to ensure that’s not the case.

Also, while the Stella Prize has done much to identify the barriers to women’s success in the literary world, things can slip back very quickly. We know that the workplace gender pay gap was narrower in 2004 (14.9%) than it was 10 years later in 2014 (18.5%) or even now (15.3%). Similarly that Global Gender Gap Report estimated it would take 169 years to gender equality in 2016 but that had widened a year later by 48 years so the pace of change actually slowed last year.

In any case, it’s all too long to wait. I encourage leaders in other areas – especially cultural ones – to consider bold interventions, as we did. The best time for action is always now.

The winner of the 2018 Stella Prize will be announced tomorrow.

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