Wednesday 31 March 2010

Sexual Imbalance in Poetry Competitions?

Uiscebots, that well known promoter of positive discimination for women and thoroughly nice guy, pointed out a possible bias in poetry competitions. I decided to dig deeper.
  • Iota shortlist. 4 out of 13 unless Pat is Patricia. The judge was man (Tim Turnbull)
  • Crawshaw shortlist, 3 out of 12. Winners, 1 out of 6. Judge - The Salt Publishing board.
  • Strokestown shortlist 4 out of 10. Judges a man and 2 women (Sebastian Barker, Julie O'Callaghan and Enda Wyley)
  • Dromineer: 3 out of 3 were men. 3 women in the commended list of 4. Judge a woman (Vona Groarke)
  • Arvon/Classic FM 2008: Top 3 men. 2 out of 3 commended were women. Judges: a man and two women (Andrew Motion, Moniza Alvi and Alice Oswald)
  • Attleborough: 3 (maybe 4) out of 10 Women. Judge: Committee
  • Padraig Fallon 2008: 5 out of 14 women. Judge: a man (Ciaran O'Driscoll)
  • National Poetry Competition 2010: 1 woman out of 3. Judges: 2 men and a woman. Ruth Padel, Daljit Nagra and Neil Rollinso
  • Cafe Writers. 3 out of  7. Judge: 1 man (George Szirtes)
  • Wigtown 2009. 2 out of 12 (2 initials only) Judges: 2 men. (Douglas Dunn and Kevin MacNeil
  • Patrick Kavanagh. 2 out of 5. Judge: a man (Brian Lynch
  • Troubadour. 9 out of 23 (couple unknowns). Judges: a man and a woman (Maura Dooley and Jamie McKendrick
  • Plough.  4 out of 8. Judge: a woman (Alison Brackenbury)
  • Windows: published 16 out of 30. Judges a man and a woman (Noel Monaghan and Heather Brett)
  • Bridport: 7 out of 13. Judge a woman (Jackie Kay)
  • Fish 2009: 6 out of 8 women! Judge: a man (Peter Fallon)
  • Gregory O'Donoghue Poetry Prize: 8 out of 13 women. Judge: a man (James Harpur)
  • Ragged Robin. 3 out of 5. Judge: Committee
Total  85 out of 199.

This is a straw poll but I find the results startling.
Are the low proportion of women in the shortlists representative of the submissions proportions?

Are there proportionally fewer women poets? That's not the impression I get at readings or workshops.
Do fewer women send poems to competitions? That's possible. Certainly men appear to be more likely to send out their poems at an earlier stage than men. The only way to find this out is if some competition organisers crank out some numbers here. (A thankless task, I think)
Are there more male judges than female? 10 women and 13 men in the ones above suggest slightly more.
Are male judges more likely to favour men? The numbers above suggest not really.

Or are the type of poems that win or place in competitions, the type of poems more commonly written by men? Call me controversal, call me mad, call me jealous, but I'm suggesting yes.

Next question.
Does this have a knock on effect in poetry magazines and poetry collection publication?


Anonymous said...

The judges aren't supposed to know the name or gender of the entrant - so I don't know if that should be considered a factor here. IF it is judged blind, as it should be, then it might be a question of a certain style or choice of subject.

Pure Fiction said...

I think you're right about the type of poem that's entered being a major factor in winning or being shortlisted for a competition - maybe also there is a slight difference in style of writing?

Emerging Writer said...

That's true, Dave, that most are judged anonymously. But the imbalance is marked. Is it to do with masculine/feminine style or subject matter?

Group 8 said...

When I judge comps (anonymously) my winners are nearly always women. Maybe I recognise and am sub-consciously drawn to women's writing on some deep level. I certainly hope so!

Many comp organisers sniff at the notion of gender balance on judging panels. Often because they think the patriarchy doesn't exist. It does.

Brigid O'Connor said...

Interesting post, Kate, there must be a particular 'writery' style that wins through all the time.
Would explain why there is a lot of the same people up for compettions or are these people brilliant or are they good at tailoring for competitions ?. Wish I knew the secret.

Titus said...

That's interesting. Figures certainly suggest it's happening, but not deliberately.
This is worth a ponder.

George S said...

Could I point out that the year before me it was Penelope Shuttle (1 woman) judging Cafewriters, Norwich.

I can't remember if you mentioned the Yorkshire Poetry Competition. I judged it this year. Last year it was Penelope Shuttle (still a woman). I was invited to be a judge by a woman.

I am also on the panel of the Stephen Spender Poetry Competition judging. That is myself and three women. I was invited to be a judge by a woman.

This year I judged it and guess who won. Helen Mort. A woman.

If you don't want my opinion, don't ask.

Totalfeckineejit said...

I think thetre should be moremental unbalance in competitions.Whe ha her her hooo!

Emerging Writer said...

Well this post has got some people pondering, which was the point.

I don't really think there is any marked split based on the sex of the judges, (which in itself is interesting.)

WRW and George S - I wonder would it possible for the competitions with which you were associated to look at the split of submissions.

George S. Thanks for reading. The figures don't suggest a bias of the judges by sex, just a general imbalance in the results, for which I included the shortlists where publicised.
What do you think the figures show?
Do you think fewer women submit?
Do you think there is a 'man'-style of poem?

George S said...

If you're asking me - I don't know the answers to any of that. I note that Helen Dunmore has just won the National Poetry Competition, and that Alice Oswald has been awarded the Ted Hughes Prize. You will also see that I am judging the National Poetry Competition with two women judges. (No doubt if a male poet wins it will be my fault.) The UK has a female Poet Laureate, as did Wales before (Gwyneth Lewis).

What I don't like about this is that the inevitable cry of 'the patriarchy' comes up, as it has in this comment column (see the well-titled Women Rule Writer), so everyone is encouraged to think there is some vast conspiracy of which I, and every other male poet, must be a part; that we spend our judging time - looking at thousands of poems -trying to work out whether a poem is by a woman just so we can disqualify it.

I seriously object to it. Like all smears, it is not stated, just insinuated. It's a package, like pass the parcel. You know what's in the package at the end. I actually prefer Women Rule Writer for simply saying it.

I respond to this post because you have me down as part of the list of suspicion.

The problem is that putting the question like this makes it impossible even to speculate. I have told you I don't know the answer, but I do know that should I even try seriously to consider it, unless I came up with the answers you already think you know, I'd just be part of the patriarchy again.

So why ask?

Competition entries are anonymous.

Emerging Writer said...

Hi George,

Please take a moment and read the post again. You will see that I don't suggest there is a difference between competitions judged by men and those judges by women. There are more male judges than women judges but only a few.

There is no suggestion of a 'vast conspiracy' nor 'smears' nor 'list of suspicion.' I don't understand how you read this into the numbers and why you are taking umbrage.

Is there a patriarchy? No more than in the rest of the world, I suspect.

Why do you think more poems by men are chosen than by women?

Group 8 said...

I don't have real answers to the questions either, just that it seems to be a reality. Would more female judges mean more female winners? Who knows? But at least there would be balance.

I can't see that less women enter comps. Most writers groups are made up of women, in Ireland at least.

George S said...

'I don't suggest there is a difference between competitions judged by men and those judged by women. '

- Then why put it up? You say in your list that I ('one man') judged the Cafewriters competition, but you don't say a woman won it.

Heading of post: 'Sexual Imbalance', 'possible bias' in the first paragraph. Where would you like me to go from there? Oh, I see, my name follows.

In any case, I explain perfectly clearly why I take exception to the list, when put like this. Read the answer. Short answer: I don't think it is an unloaded question.

There is in fact a short list of commended entries at the Poetry Society website. There seem to be four women, five men, plus one with initials.

I will pick up the question at my own blog. I don't quite like addressing it in this context. But I will refer to your post.

Kit said...

Thanks for this.

I haven't and couldn't crunch the numbers but this and other similar surveys suggest that women have a high hit rate of winners despite low reprsentation on shortlists.

This supports my observation (prejudice?) that women are more cautious about submitting and tend to work their material more thoroughly before they do. You see it everywhere. I run a poetry event, and I struggle to find women to speak up in the guest slots (like an open mic, except closed - I'm a benign tyrant). Ask a woman you know darn well writes darn well and you'll get "Oh no, I couldn't I've nothing with me; I couldn't possibly, I haven't prepared..." if not "Me, I'm not a *poet*!" Guy: "[pulls grimy piece of paper from shirt pocket] I was working on this today, will that do?" I exaggerate. But not much. It's not necessarily a bad thing. Very few of the poetry bores I know are women...

Emerging Writer said...

I noted the gender of the judges where known because some people assume that there is a split there. I didn't see one. I think that in itself is interesting.

3 out of 7 isn't biased anyway. That's just maths.

Kitling raises an interesting question too. Women writers do seem more reluctant to put their work out there than men. Not a hard and fast rule but a noticable trend. I wonder if this is getting less common through the generations.

George S said...

Links 2 and 3 too.

Colm Keegan said...

Kate this is gas. You say the monthly arts night I run is 'all men again' and I jokingly say 'Thank God.'

Then I come onto your blog and leave a similarly minded comment saying 'Mostly Men' about a list of shortlisted poets and you turn it into this breathtakingly meaningless whirlwind of hot air.

I honestly came onto the blog, counted up the poets, snickered, and left the comment. I can't believe you took the bait!

Emerging Writer said...

Here's the thing, Colm, until you pointed it out, I didn't even notice. Now I am forever alert to imbalances. And it's your fault...

Emerging Writer said...

Check out George's blog for more analysis and lively discussion

(3 parts)

Roderick White said...

I think that the general problem with poetry competitions is that there is a very narrow idea of what is considered 'good' poetry. It is in general highly academic, strongly biased towards the literature establishment and strongly tied to what has worked in the past. This means that only a certain type of poetry wins competitions. This is also why some clever poets can look at a competition and write poetry directly to win that competition.

Emerging Writer said...

Hi Igneos, Thanks for dropping by. In an English Lit exam, you can write the type of essay that the average examiner will like (most examiners are/were English teachers.)
And in a poetry competition, you may be craft a poem with the aim of winning based on the perceived likes of the judges - but I'd rather try and write the best poem I can. Maybe that's why I haven't won many competitions!
Do you think there is a sexual bias?