If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.


If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.

The Matilda Effect: unconscious bias in science and reading

There was a time when I thought I wasn’t a feminist.  I was young, gay (in all senses) and worked in the male-dominated field of veterinary surgery and truly believed that as long as I could anaesthetise the next horse and get it safely back on its feet without killing it – which is a lot harder than it might sound; horses start to die the moment you lay them on their sides and if you lie them on their backs, the window is far, far smaller – then my gender, indeed my sexual orientation, was of no consequence.

Up to a point, that’s still true, but now I’m a writer, and more, I’m a writer in a field that’s supposedly ‘male’ – which is to say the ancient Roman world.  Men dominated then, men dominate now and Lindsey Davies is held up as the exception that proves the rule, although she was writing detective novels set in ancient Rome and that’s a genre with enough women who do well from Agatha Christie onwards, that men are prepared to take a punt.

But in the macho world of legions and fighting – the ‘swords and sandals’ subgenre, men dominate and are seen to be superior.  If we leave aside that this is not what I write (truly, it isn’t), it’s nevertheless, the marketing slot that we’re aiming at. Buyers, and particularly the supermarkets who need to stock the books if there’s to be a chance at the top 10, have very limited flexibility when it comes to placing books on the shelves and we need a good slice ‘this is like…’ to make them sit up and take notice.

Even then, the sales stand at 80% women to 20% men if the author is obviously female.  Create a gender neutral name (MC Scott instead of Manda Scott) and that shifts instantly to 50:50 – and it’s not that the women are dropping – women suffer the same internal bias as men.

Which is why this study (summarised rather nicely here on Athene Donald’s exemplary blog) on the ‘Matilda effect’ is particularly interesting. The quote below is from Athene’s blog – please do read the entire thing – the italics are mine:

“This study looked at the responses of ‘243 young communication scholars’ when asked to rate some (carefully manipulated) conference abstracts. (The Matilda effect was a phrase coined by Margaret Rossiter 20 years ago to describe the systematic underrecognition of women in science.) The abstracts’ topics and authors were varied to see how the readers reacted and to test a series of hypotheses relying on ‘role congruity’. This theory says that a group (or in this case, an abstract) will be positively evaluated when its characteristics are recognized as aligning with that group’s typical social roles. So a paper written by women about a subject ‘appropriate’ to their gender, such as the effect of media on children (remember this was a project involving science communicators), will be more highly rated than one written by women on an ‘inappropriate’ topic such as political communication.

Their hypotheses were largely borne out; on average the papers written by ‘men’ were perceived as of higher quality than those written by ‘women’, and even more so if stereotypically male topics were being written about. The respondents were also more likely to want to collaborate with the males on stereotypically ‘male’ topics and with the women on those topics associated with women. These trends were the same irrespective of the respondents own gender. The differences in evaluations were not large, but as earlier studies have shown, small effects multiply up over time; this is true of salaries and it is true of less tangible attributes such as recognition or collaboration opportunities.”

We haven’t decided yet whether to stick with MC Scott or go back to Manda Scott -there are way too many variables and too an extent, it depends on the nature of the book I’m writing at the moment (Jeanne d’Arc – because I know who she was and it *definitely* wasn’t a peasant girl from Domremy – plus a contemporary thriller thread looking at what that revelation could do in modern France) – but we have to take into account the fact that the Matilda Effect applies to books as well as science…

And yes, now I do realise that I’m a feminist.  Michelle Spring, the lovely and gifted crime writer from Cambridge  – who is also a social scientist of some standing- did tell me I was. ‘You’re just not out to yourself’ – and she was so right.  I watch the world around me and realise who far we haven’t come, and how far we have to go to reach anything approaching the gender blind world I used to think I lived in.  It’s possible, I’m sure, but it’ll take a lot of work, not least because the bias we live with is so deeply, deeply unconscious.

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