Novels

Gender Ratios in Novels: Check Your Biases

gender

Recently I was reading a few studies about how even when women speak less than men, they are perceived to be noisier.

In fact, in one study, conducted by Australian researcher Dale Spender, when women spoke only 15% of the time, they were perceived as having spoken an equal amount to men. And when they spoke only 30% of the time, both men and women viewed the as having dominated the conversation.

Good grief.

This seemed ridiculous, yet probably true. I mean, it’s a study, it’s true, but it’s also a thirty-year-old study. Probably not as true anymore. Right?

I’d like to think that. But I’m also aware that, according to a few more recent articles, it probably still is. At least, it is in popular media.

This is a pretty awful bias, so I decided to look at my own books. After all, I’m a feminist. I’m the person my parents look to and go “you think that’s sexist, don’t you” and I say yes. I will stop a party dead if a “women in the kitchen” joke is told, and if I spot someone calling someone a “whore,” they can say goodbye to me following them on Twitter. I spend no little time and effort making sure all my tutoring materials are absolutely 50/50 between showing boys and girls.

My books should be pretty even, right? Yes, the story centers around a guy, and probably there’s more men than women, but from the outside, I’m betting I’ve got a gender ratio of 60% men, 40% women.

Er.

No.

Not even close.

Adding every single named character from both What Boys Are Made Of and The Mercy of Men together, I have a grand total of 85 names.

64 men (75%)

21 women (25%)

…But okay, my books are really heavy on “wise guys” and gangsters and henchmen, etc. I have plenty of important women. So what if I weed out all the characters who are merely names or just referred to and only include people who speak? That gives us 54 people.

38 men (70%)

16 women (30%)

As we say in Southeast Ohio, well, shit.

Because you know what? I make a concerted effort to include women as background characters. As in, if my characters are talking to a nameless shopkeeper, chances are she’s a woman.

Or so I thought.

Apparently not.

Now, this doesn’t include any of my latter books, because this handy dandy list of names was created by my editor Jennifer Zaczek at Cypress Editing and those are the books she’s edited so far. Maybe my gender game really steps up in Book 3.

But you know what? I’m betting it doesn’t. I’m betting it stays right on target.

30%. Ouch.

Now, no one has reported that my book feels too “woman-heavy.” So perhaps these days, for it to feel like there are too many women, you have to have 35%. Or 40%. But the fact that I was thinking I didn’t do too badly keeping things on par says volumes, and not in the way I wanted it to.

So let’s see how I did against some famous works.

How about Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit? 100% men! Okay, I’m ahead of that. (Seriously, Tolkien?) Okay, we probably knew that one.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? 64% male, 36% female. That actually surprises me, because I really hated that book as a kid for how sexist it is. But hey, just because it’s sexist doesn’t mean it can’t have women. Just not women who go into battle. Unless they’re evil.

(Yes, I’m one of those people who wants stuff I dislike to do badly. Sue me for being petty.)

Harry Potter measures up pretty well with 63.5% male, 36.5% female. Star Wars, on the other hand, averages 83% male, 17% female. So on that scale, I’m not doing great, but I’m not doing terrible.

On the real scale, though, we’re all doing pretty badly. Because none of these are even close to equal. Not one. Frozen was the first Disney movie to give more lines to women than to men, and considering how many princess movies have come before it, that’s just sad.

So, readers, how do your favorite books do? Writers, how about your own work? More men than women? More women than men? Is it the story, or your own biases? Let us know below!

As always, I’d love to keep in touch with you on Facebook! You can like my author page there and stay up-to-date on both books and blog. Two for one!

Thanks for reading.

[Info on various gender ratios from The Digital Reader, “Infographic: Gender Ratio In Popular Fiction.”]

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13 thoughts on “Gender Ratios in Novels: Check Your Biases

  1. Gender bias in books and on TV is something I’m very aware of, maybe more so that I’m at home with my son and children’s books only sometimes give us a token female character. I look at the world my son is shown and I realise it sends terrible messages about who and what is important.
    If I had a girl, I think I would be even more horrified.
    I’ll do a little count up of my novel, Ashes, but I think my bias might go the other way.
    Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t get me started on someone I knew who, while I was tutoring her son, refused to let me use books with girls as main characters because “he won’t read them.” Or the place I worked for two brief weeks that taught careers as “policeman, fireman, postman.” Kids will pick it up anyway; no need to enforce it.

      Yet at the same time, I fall into the trap with my book. It creeps up when we aren’t looking.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never really gave gender ratios a conscious thought, and I was a little afraid to look at my own books. But my historical novel, in the major character department, actually has 4 women and 5 men. It’s a bit boy-heavy as far as side characters go, but that’s part the time frame and part the plot. So not too shabby, I think.
    One of my most recent WIPs is a detective that has 3 female mains and 2 male mains. Though of course I was afraid I was /too/ biased towards women – now I think I’d rather keep it this way. Or maybe I’ll skew it towards women even further.

    Thanks for an interesting read!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m really conscious of gender bias in my WIP.

    In romance novels, it’s always adorable, petite women who get into trouble, make poor choices, and react to their situation. They usually have some menial job or no job at all (struggling to make a living). They’re “spunky” and “full of fire”. Alpha males, on the other hand, are everything she’s not: cool, calm, collected, have a pretty decent income, make good choices, help women out of trouble, and are highly proactive and protective.

    In other words, things happen to women; men make things happen.

    And seeing that in print is why I set out to make Sarah the hero of my story, rather than her husband. She’s getting a PhD, teaching university level classes, helping her parents out, and she makes pretty good choices. She’s intelligent, proactive (most of the time), wants to be part of the solution, and makes her own choices. It may be a marriage of convenience story, but Sarah still has agency.

    I’m doing what I can to teach my nieces and young cousins that they are more than just beautiful, more than just a face and a body to look at. They have a brain and intelligence, and they can use it in amazing ways.

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    1. I think you’ve missed my point, though. I am also very careful with my individual characters. My mains are fairly balanced between male and female. Yet sheer numbers slipped through, which is why the post is about checking literal numbers. Checking the unconscious biases built into us by society, aka that the default person is male. And I knew that and yet, because I never counted, the fact that women are seen as “noisy” meant that I truly t

      I sort of assume the blatantly anti-feminists have already abandoned my blog in disgust 😉

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      1. Trying to type on phone, sent before I was ready!!

        …I truly thought I had not too unequal of ratios until I counted. It’s not enough to assume we’ve done that right. And that sucks, because it’s instincts steering us wrong.

        Believe me, I’ve got big time rules for making sure my characters save themselves, act not are acted upon, etc. but it slips by.

        Like

  4. I know my sword-and-sorcery fantasy series, The Renegade Chronicles, has a dearth in female characters, but I thought I had pretty good gender balance in my sci-fi series, The Soul Sleep Cycle. Then I started thinking about non-named characters and whether I defaulted to males in those cases.

    Well, an hour and a half later (after scanning through Book 1), I end up with the following figures:

    TOTAL CHARACTERS:

    – Male: 46%
    – Female: 52%
    – Unrevealed: 2%

    CHARACTERS WHO ARE NAMED ONLY:

    – Male: 43%
    – Female: 55%
    – Unrevealed: 2%

    I’m felling pretty good about that…aside from the hour and a half I spent researching this instead of working on my chapter outline for Book 3…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I didn’t count up characters, although they’ll probably be slightly heavier on males than females. I’ve retold a lot of fairy tales, and Snow White had the Seven Dwarves, after all. But for POV characters, I have five novels with female POV characters, two novels with male, and one that’s split down the middle.

    But that was part of what I set out to do. I wanted to write feminine women showing strength. I wanted to show that a woman nursing victims of an epidemic back to health was as great a hero as the man who went out and shot pistols at the problem.

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  6. very interesting. definitely, in certain genres – war, crime – you will see far more males – but they are largely male-dominated in reality as well as literature. on the other hand, this begs the question, why are people drawn to read about spheres dominated by men? there is certainly a big volume of so called chick-lit, and it might be interesting to see how those books came out. i’m guessing Amy Tan and Jodi Picoult would tilt female. but possibly they are more evenly balanced. and then there is the question of whether ‘chick-lit’ is pejorative just because it is written by and for women – a topic Jennifer Wiener just wrote about in the NY Times last week.

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    1. I think people are drawn to spheres whether they’re dominated by men or not. I would not classify Jodi Picoult or Amy Tan’s books as “chick lit,” as I do find the term a pejorative–we have “women’s fiction” but not “men’s fiction”–but as to their gender ratios, I have no idea. Though I’m tempted to guess they’re even, I’m betting they’re not, and I’m betting their male-dominated if only by sheer names named. It’d be interesting if someone’s counted; I’d love to see it.

      Like

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