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Shocking research shows how little we value books written by women

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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A new study has found that books written by women are valued at nearly half the price of those written by men. But why?

Off the top of our heads, we can think of numerous examples of a woman’s work being considered as less valuable than that of a man’s. Take the gender pay gap, for instance, which sees women earn an average of 18.4% less than men. Or the fact that less than 29% of FTSE100 board positions are currently held by women – and that this figure is record breaking. Then, of course, there’s the unavoidable fact that there are more statues of men called John in the UK than there are of women.

One particular area where this bias against women is particularly evident is the literary world, which has an uncomfortably long history of sidelining female writers in favour of their male counterparts. You need only take a quick glance at one of the annual VIDA counts of book reviews to see this bias in action – the most recent survey found that around two-thirds of the books reviewed globally were written by men, with two-thirds of the reviewers themselves being men, too. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that numerous women, including the phenomenally successful JK Rowling, choose not to publish their work under names that are identifiably female. Rowling even went for an unambiguously masculine pseudonym – Robert Galbraith – to sell her subsequent series of crime novels under.

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Now the extent of this bias has been further confirmed in a new study, which found that books written by women were valued at nearly half the price of those written by men. The research analysed the prices of over two million books published in North America between 2002 and 2012, and cross-referenced the genders of the authors against the price, genre and publication of the tomes. Ultimately, they found that books penned by women were priced at an average of 45% less than men. 

Writing in an article for Plos One, sociologist Dana Beth Weinberg and mathematician Adam Kapelner, who ran the study, attributed this chasm in value partly to the fact that women typically write for lower priced genres than men. For example, the majority of romance novels analysed in the study were written by women, while the majority of science books were written by men – and the books sold in the romance genre were typically cheaper than those in the science genre.

This low valuation of a ‘typically female’ genre has long been a bone of contention among authors, with Weinberg telling The Guardian she is aware that some people believe “books written predominantly by women and for women such as romance and women’s fiction do not receive the recognition they deserve.” And Sunday Times bestselling author Harriet Evans, who has written 10 novels, agrees.

“The simple fact is that when women write books about family, secrets, jobs, and love - the stuff of life, basically - it is seen as something to denigrate or call ‘a little light reading’ (the actual title of a table stocking books only by women in a bookshop I saw yesterday),” she tells stylist.co.uk.

“This is not light reading! It is enthralling, heartbreaking, addictive and wince-inducingly recognisable as any good fiction should be,” she continues. “My books are stocked in the Romance section in Waterstones. There’s no romance in my latest book, but it’s by a woman, so…”

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Crucially, even when the researchers controlled for these differences in prices among genres, they still found a disparity in price, with books written by women priced at 9% lower than those written by men.

Commenting that the researchers were initially “very surprised” by this unquestionable discrimination, Weinberg said, “we expected that taking account of the first two discrimination patterns [gender segregation by book genre and the different value placed on these genres] would knock out any remaining differences in prices within genre, but we were wrong about that.

“In retrospect, perhaps we should not have been surprised about this difference, since this pattern also mirrors the wage inequality within jobs that we see in the larger economy.”

In an effort to try and establish a concrete reason why women’s books were priced so much lower than men’s, the researchers also studied the price differences in self-published books – after all, perhaps the large and established publishing houses were the sexist ones? However, the results showed a robust price difference here, too, with books penned by women still priced at 7% less than those by men.

“Without the publishers, we see slightly less discrimination, but it’s still apparent, and it follows the same patterns,” Weinberg said.

Unsurprisingly, the results of the study exasperated numerous authors. “The findings are not at all surprising to me,” Evans tells stylist.co.uk. “It’s two things: ingrained snobbery and sexism, plain and simple.”

And speaking to The Guardian, Costa-winning author Francesca Segal described the results as “exhausting”, adding that it was “old news framed in a new way – women paid less for the same work”.

Authors also took to Twitter to share their frustration, with crime writer Val McDermid calling it “yet another ‘FFS’ moment” and YA author Jen Doll writing “here is another reason to feel pissed off”.

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So what can be done to help balance out this disparity in pay, and finally give female authors the recognition – and reward – that they deserve? Acclaimed author Kirsty Logan believes a large part of the issue is an unconscious bias against women – and that examining this bias is the only way to finally break it down.

“I don’t think any one of us intentionally devalues the work of female writers, but these stats show how insidious our unconscious biases can be,” she tells stylist.co.uk.

“It’s not enough to just question our own thoughts - we need to examine our actions to see how these biases can creep in and affect us.”

Images: Unsplash, Priscilla du Preez, Naletu, Pj Accetturo, Toa Heftiba