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Sex discrimination by the book

  • 16 September 2011

The Stella Prize, Australia's proposed new women's only literary prize, comes in response to the growing awareness that although literary arts are largely produced and consumed by women, women are less likely to review or be reviewed in major literary pages, or to win major literary prizes.

The debate about women's representation in high literature began to gain serious ground last year when an organisation of women literary artists in the United States, VIDA, released statistics revealing women's dire absence from critical acclaim.

Australia's Stella committee have released equivalent statistics. Women represent 70–80 per cent of book buyers, over 60 per cent of book editors and roughly 50 per cent of publishing authors. Their absence from critical acclaim indicates a serious cultural problem.

Responses to the establishment of the new prize have been generally positive, aside from a few cautious criticisms. The most serious of these is that women don't need a prize of their own; that performance itself, and not identity, merits reward.

It's true that art is not about identity; art is not, and shouldn't have to be, about anything other than art. Yet if assumptions about gender did not affect the way we read, J. K. Rowling would be Joanne Kathleen and the Miles Franklin Award would be the Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin Award.

On the other hand, to suggest that we live in a meritocracy is patently untrue. The culture of success is not driven by merit. If it were, then the recently initiated, white-male-dominated Power Index would be proof that white men are simply more meritorious than everyone else.

In fact, in Australia, girls perform better at school, and women outnumber men at university. So what happens to women in their professional years? They are inducted into a society that favours the characteristics we are taught belong to boys: ambition, aggression and self aggrandising. Some women successfully participate in boys club cultures, but they do so in spite of their gender.

The Power Index Secrets of the Powerful ebook gives advice to the burgeoning powerful. The tongue-in-cheek guidebook reads: 'Never fear making demands for jobs