Saturday, November 23, 2013

the male-only prize for science books

The shortlisted titles for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books this year are:

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead
The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll
Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life by Enrico Coen
Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts

Notice anything strange? Hint: look at the first names of the authors. All six of them are men. Surely some coincidence? Well, I went through the list of winners for the last 26 years and the shortlists for the last 14 years. The prize – with its many renamings and reincarnations – has never been won by a woman, which becomes less surprising when you consider that out of the last 14 shortlists, only 5 contained a woman (and none had more than one). That’s 5 / 84 or 6%. (Funnily enough, I seem to remember the fellows of the Royal Society have about the same gender ratio?) In other words: since the year 2000, nine years have produced all-male shortlists.

Taking a quick look at my popular science shelves, I acknowledge that the majority of authors are male, but not an embarrassingly large majority. Some of my all-time favourite popular science books are written by women, including Woman, by Natalie Angier, and Deadly companions, by Dorothy Crawford. The latter title was published in 2007, so could have been shortlisted for 2008. As it happens, 2008 was one of the years without a woman on the shortlist. Plastic Fantastic, a very important book about how science is done these days (using a famous recent case of misconduct), by Eugenie Samuel Reich was published in 2009 – again there was no woman on the 2010 shortlist.

I suppose this is due to an accumulation of bias over the many selective steps involved, from an author drumming up the confidence to make a book proposal, via a publisher accepting the proposal, a publisher suggesting the book to be considered for a prize, through to the longlisting, shortlisting, and prize-giving process.

In any case, it’s clear to me that the prize has consistently failed to reflect the contribution that women make to writing about science, so it should either be scrapped or fixed. Fixing would require positive discrimination – from my experience with “zipper” style gender alternation rules in Germany’s Green Party in the 1980s and 90s I can confirm that very simple measures can work miracles not just for the representation but also for the way things are done – if every committee has at least 50% female participation, the management style is improved dramatically.

Similarly, positive discrimination at the top of the science book prize, making sure that women are visible in the shortlist (e.g. by widening the shortlist), could feed back to the previous selection levels, such that more women are inspired to write about science, more publishers commission them, and more publishers put them forwards for prizes. It shouldn’t be difficult.

The winner of this year's prize will be announced on Monday 25th. We already know the winning author will be a man. Maybe they should rename it the male-only prize for science books.

wrong gender?

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