Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Investigating Gender Bias in the BCAs

Back in march 2012, I posted an article about Sexism in Comics, in which I polled my local bookshops. What I discovered was that even if you focus exclusively on “indie” publishers, the industry is still heavily dominated by male creators. The indie collection in Blackwells Oxford consisted of 16% female creators, and the collection in Waterstones Oxford just 9%. Similar results came in from other people who polled their local shops. Interestingly though, when I dragged out my pile of self-published comics from conventions over the last few years, I found that it consisted of 49% female creators!

This seemed to suggest something sober, but still hopeful. Only 20 or so years ago, a woman working in the comics industry was a genuine rarity, but since then a small but significant percentage of female creators has appeared on our bookshelves, meaning that it’s now easily possible to list a more than a few well-known female creators. This is a great achievement, but unfortunately it can create the illusion that indie comics have reached a greater state of gender parity than they really have.

Moving on to the topic at hand, my only experience with comic awards in the UK in the past has been the Eagle Awards, and despite Freakangels winning twice, I found it to be an alienating experience. The awards for the most part went out to a stream of US creators, franchise titles, and larger US publishers. In 2012, out of a massive total of 145 nominations across 29 categories, I counted only 7 female creators, and the only woman who won an award was up for best editor. Not one female artist or writer awarded, and 29 awards handed out.

A few weeks ago I attended the new British Comic Awards as Kate Brown’s +1 (she’d been nominated for Best Children’s Book), and in the interest of full disclosure, I'll document how I felt whilst watching them here:

Initially, my reaction was something along the lines of "finally, a PROPER award!". There were only a few categories, and all the nominations were for British books and creators. They were all from a range of genres and publishers and not one of them came from a franchise - it was all original or adapted material. The committee choosing the nominees consisted of 2 women and 5 men, already above the bookshop averages I noted earlier, and the judges were 1/3rd women, even higher still.

The best book went to Nelson, an anthology that I looked at closely whilst doing my earlier article. It contains 53 creators, 14 of whom are women, which is a better male/female ratio than either bookshop shelf I polled! It’s an extremely deserving book, and I felt like the whole industry was getting a prize.

Most significantly, of 5 nominees for Emerging Talent, two were women, and Joceline Fenton, someone whose self-published work I’ve long admired, took the prize. She did so by merit, but I also felt that the 40% female make-up of a category all about the future was representative of the change in comics that I, amongst many other creators, have been waiting for.

After the initial buzz there was time to discuss and reflect. I realised that there were a few potential flaws in the setup, including some repeat nominations and a panel that included creators nominating other creators. But I (and others I talked to) felt that those were ultimately minor niggles in what was one of the most positive moments for UK comics in many, many years.

However, since the award, by far the biggest press that the BCAs have received has been for not having decent female representation.

I know that there are many ways in which gender discrimination can occur, and it’s often hard to spot when they’re at work unless you’re on the lookout. So I decided to put aside my initial feelings, and do a proper investigation of the awards.

Gender representation in the BCAs was brought into focus by the Forbidden Planet article, Thoughts from Thought Bubble, featuring an interview with Philippa Rice, and became most visible when Laura Sneddon posted the article “Where were all the women at theBritish Comic Awards?”  on New Statesman. Laura’s article sums the story up nicely and is worth a read. It contains a lot of commentary from the people involved, along with official statements from some of the organisers, and links to parts of a key discussion that occurred on twitter between Philippa and a few of the committee members.

Looking at gender balance and feminist issues in comics is extremely important, and by carrying out this investigation I hope to continue the conversation and add a new voice. After making myself familiar with the background material, the central discussion issues seem to be the following:

  1. Out of 17 nominees, only 3 were women.
  2.  This ratio doesn’t represent the levels of diversity in the comic industry at large, or the Thought Bubble show floor.
  3. Karrie Fransman, Mary Talbot and Simone Lia and many other deserving women were not nominated.
  4. The committee and the judges were in the majority, male/white/English/straight/non-disabled.
  5. The committee that chose the nominees contained creators who worked in Nelson, which won an award.
  6. Philippa’s criticisms of the awards were silenced by male members of the committee. 

I went about investigating these criticisms one by one and here’s what I found:

1 - Out of 17 nominees, only 3 were women.

On first glance, this seems like a poor ratio of male to female creators, and looking at it outside the context of the award ceremony, I can understand why it intuitively made some commentators annoyed. However, the investigation I did in my Sexism in Comics article puts this in a different light.

3 female creators may not seem like much, but with only 14 other nominees, that’s still 18% female representation, which is actually higher than the Indie sections of the bookshop shelves that I polled.
Looking at the nominees further, I realised that WoodrowPhoenix was included on the list because he is one of the editors of Nelson (Rob Davis, the other editor, was also nominated for Don Quixote), which as an anthology features 26% female creators. Given this, Woodrow should really be treated as one “hybrid-nominee” who is proportionally gendered, and when you run the maths with that in mind, the female percentage goes up to 19%. Furthermore, when you poll the winners, you get even better numbers: 25% female (with Nelson represented by our “hybrid-nominee”).

So far the awards seem not only representative when it comes to gender, but actually a little progressive. They’re a huge step forward from the Eagles, and at least a small step forward from Indie comics in general.

2 - This ratio doesn’t represent the diversity visible on the Thought Bubble show floor. 

A count of the Thought Bubble guest-list shows that 17% of the guest-list is female, meaning that the percentage of female nominees in the BCAs was actually higher than the percentage of female guests at Thought Bubble.

However, when I used the exhibitor list instead of the guest list, I counted 28% female exhibitors (please note this was a very difficult quantity to measure given the number of pseudonyms and collectives involved, as with any other statistic in this article, I'd welcome outside corroboration). This is an interesting result, because I observed a similar thing when compared my own collection of published and self-published material, and when I looked into the distribution of female nominees in the BCAs I found the same thing again.

In the Emerging Talent category, 40% (2 out of 5) of nominees were women, and the winner was a woman. This means that the awards not only have a representative ratio overall, but they also celebrate a rising female percentage when considering talent of the future.

3 - Karrie Fransman, Mary Talbot and Simone Lia were not nominated

Now here’s where it gets tricky, because it gets personal. So far, statistics have been enough, but this criticism is based on the individual merits of these particular creators.

Personally, I think these creators are deserving of awards, and I could also extend this with more qualifying female creators that weren’t nominated. Sarah Burgess and Sally Jane Thompson were two that I thought of whilst watching the awards themselves.

However, an award can, in the end, only pay homage to a limited number of creators. This means there will ALWAYS be unrepresented creators, both male and female. There’s a lot of talent in the UK industry, despite how small it is, which means that there are bound to be disenfranchised people who believe that good material has been passed over (for example, I read an article on CBR that was annoyed at how the deserving material in 2000AD and The Beano was passed over).

The best that any award committee can do is offer an informed opinion, tempered by consensus and discussion. This means that no matter the award, no matter the industry, there will always be people who disagree with that opinion. The important question when it comes to gender representation should be not who but how many. So far, examining the BCAs has shown that they have a male/female ratio that is both realistic and forward looking.

4 - The committee and the judges were in the majority, white/male/English/straight/non-disabled.

The committee consisted of 29% women, and the judging panel was 1/3rd women. This is not just representative of the industry as it stands, but significantly better.

Regarding the other elements of this criticism, the organiser Adam Cadwell had the following comment to give:
“we had one Scottish person on the Committee, Vicky Stonebridge, and one gay man amongst the Judges, Stephen L Holland”.
EDIT: And Dan Berry points out on twitter that he's Welsh.

I’d also like to point out that it’s perfectly possible for someone to be disabled without that fact being physically obvious, or subject to public knowledge.

I want to be clear about this: diversity, minority representation and gender representation are massively important factors and should never be swept under the carpet or left un-discussed. However, given the limited number of judges and committee members, the elements of diversity that they already display, along with the male/white/straight/non-disabled majority in the industry itself, it seems not only unfair, but inaccurate to accuse the awards of prejudice in these respects.

5 - The committee that chose the nominees contained creators who worked in Nelson.

This is a tricky one! As a creator I know that it’s nearly impossible to completely untangle the work I create from the work I like and the people I want to promote and work alongside. Dan Berry seems to share this feeling, because he states that it’s one of the reasons he stepped down. However, this would only be a gender issue if it had turned out that the BCAs really did under-represent the proportion of female creators in the industry, which, given what I’ve discovered so far, I don’t believe they have.

In order to make one last effort to confirm the lack of gender bias in the awards, I contacted Adam Cadwell, the founder and organiser of the awards, and he agreed to send me the “long list” from which they chose the nominees. Knowing how sensitive something like this list is, I offered not to publish individual names from the list, only statistics, but I can confirm that it was EXHAUSTIVE!

 A quick poll of names in the list revealed 24% female creators.  That’s 5% higher than the list of nominees, and higher in general than I’ve come to expect from lists of comic creators. Before coming to any conclusions, I gave a lot of consideration to that 5% drop, and there are two reasons that I haven’t been able to rule it as evidence of gender bias.

The first is statistical and a bit technical. In a pool of 17 people, changing the gender of just one nominee changes the percentages by 5.88%. In any selection process that involves one primary criteria (in this case merit) that governs the outcome of a secondary criteria (in this case gender), there’s a random element to the distribution of the secondary criteria. To use an analogy, if you roll 60 dice, 30 of which are black and 30 of which are red, and then pick only the dice showing a 6, you’ll find that with repeated rolls, on average half of the dice showing sixes will be black and half of them will be red. However, in each individual result, there’ll be variations. You wouldn’t be surprised to roll 11 sixes, of which 5 were black and 6 were red. But then, 6 red and 5 black would be equally unsurprising. The same thing is happening with the award with equally limited numbers. Whilst 4 female nominees would have put the female percentage at 24% (exactly the same as the long-list), it’s not surprising or suspicious to see 3, nor would it have been surprising or suspicious to see 5. However, had there been 0-1 or 7-17, there might have been more reason to suspect bias, either positive or negative.
 
Secondly, a lot of the female names I counted were obviously listed for Emerging Talent, meaning that the long-list also exhibited the same bias towards a larger female percentage amongst younger creators and self-publishers.

In all, I can’t find any compelling evidence for gender bias here, so the issue seems to be about filling the committee with creators rather than the gender or sexism of those creators.

This now becomes a problem I can’t really tackle with statistics. Having a panel that includes creators nominating other creators may be easy to criticise as a system, but it has its merits as well as its weaknesses. The Eagles have shown us what can happen when it’s the consumers who choose, and there’s no-one better qualified to judge a good comic than an experienced creator. Even a critic may overlook elements of storytelling and qualities in construction that a switched-on creator would identify.

Sure, creators have biases, but so do journalists, editors, curators and publishers, and I can’t imagine who to turn to for an informed critical opinion outside of those specialisms. The UK industry is small enough that there will always be personal tensions in place, no matter who is on the committee and who is nominated.

There is also a major flaw to the arguments that call for changes to the rules governing the makeup of the committee: there already are anti-bias rules in place. You can read the details in this official blog entry published prior to the awards going public.

Adam Cadwell also has the following to say regarding the exception that allowed Nelson to be nominated:
"Regarding Nelson, it was a tricky one to choose. Both myself and fellow committee member Dan Berry both had chapters in the book. None of our own work was eligible for nomination of course but we all agreed that because we each only contributed 1/54th of the book, it was unfair to the other 52 artists and the impressive work they did on it to disallow the whole book. There has been some finger pointing about this which we perhaps should have expected but I believe it would have won regardless of our involvement because it's such a unique project and an engrossing story."

6 - Philippa’s objections were silenced by male members of the committee.

So far, the criticisms levelled at the awards haven’t held up well to close scrutiny, which means that all the furore boils down to this final issue: a debate that occurred on twitter. Here’s a transcript of the debate.

The way the conversation was characterised by Laura Sneddon in her article was: 
“The whole discussion ended in Rice apologising profusely for offering her opinion when asked in an interview, with many onlookers absolutely livid at how she had been effectively silenced.”
Philippa's apology reads:
“Yeah I'm sorry if you feel I've accused you of stuff, there's no need to get defensive”.
After which she didn’t engage in the conversation any further. Adam’s contribution to the conversation can be summed up with this tweet:
"I'd much rather people raise questions than assume or accuse. Please ask away, there's an email, twitter and an open blog.” 
Given that Adam’s tweets are neither silencing nor aggressive, the only part of the conversation I can find that might be considered as such is Matt Sheret’s (a member of the BCAs committee) response to Philippa’s apology:
“That's a very manipulative way of phrasing that. Adam's pored a year of his life into this, and was around all weekend for you to take this to in person. So was I. So was Dan.”
I can see how this might read as a man telling a woman she shouldn’t have spoken in public. It’s important to note though that this comment came after Philippa’s apology, which reads to me as an “I’m sorry you feel that way” rather than an “I’m sorry for saying what I did”.

However, I've broken this all down into parts, and named each person involved not to offer my own interpretation (no-one but the involved parties know what they really meant to do and say), but to demonstrate that nothing is straight forward when you’re dealing with the nuances of two human beings interacting – regardless of gender. This wasn’t just a woman and a man talking, it was Philippa Rice and Matt Sherett, two complex people, and crucially, friends.

And that’s what this whole gender issue seems to boil down to. An unfortunate public exchange between friends with different opinions who are extremely invested in their work and care very deeply about what it is that they do. Both Philippa and Matt have since stepped away from the debate and Philippa’s original interview is still publicly accessible.

Far from being silenced, the issue Philippa raised has not only been discussed, it has become the most visible coverage the BCAs have received.

And discussion is all for the good - if I didn’t think it was, I wouldn’t have written this! But I’m alarmed at how personal it has become. Opinions have become entrenched, facts are being lost in the face of personal accusations, and there have even been suggestions about threatening or aggressive messages exchanged in private, which are impossible to investigate or comment on

What makes this hardest is that I admire and respect everyone involved. Laura, Adam, Philippa and Matt are all real assets to British comics, which in general has been one of the most freindly and welcoming communities I've ever entered into. It upsets me to see them and the industry set at odds. I think it’s time to give all the individuals involved a break, focus on the facts and figures, and reach our own conclusions. Please take mine with a pinch of salt, question and cross-analyse my statistics, and debate my conclusions.

For what it’s worth though, I feel that the BCAs are one of the great recent achievements of British Comics, and I hope they continue and maintain a reputation as not only the premier award in the UK, but an award that any reader around the world can come to for quality and inspiration. I feel that it’s good that gender representation is being discussed, but unfortunate that the opening exchanges weren’t more carefully investigated and considered.

I hope that issues of gender continue to be discussed level-headedly, and that everyone involved can find it within themselves to keep an open mind.

Here’s to British comic creators of all genders. You rock! Please be kind to each other, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. We're all in this together.

comments

  1. Great article Paul, it's nice to bring in statistics to bring thngs down to earth. Women in comics has been such a huge issue lately and I feel at times it does get very personal - I think the personal stuff, is somejwat inevitable because the British comic industry is so incredibly small. But yeah I feel like the facts get lost, things get out of hand - it was interesting and insightful to hear the stats! Personally, I don't thnk gender is really an issue and on those aspects I think the BCA has done a brilliant job! another thing I'd like to point out about women in comics (i regards to this, and generally speaking) - is that even if there is a 'lack' of women in comics, I don't think that really proves that there is or is not a problem. I thnk when it comes to the ethics, what people need to focus on really, is how women are treated/represented in the industry - basically as the percentages have proved, numbers aren't really important - and in my opinion, not really a good argument for the negativity surrounding this current issue. I hope that makes sense, and maybe that sounds really obvious and dumb, too...

    Funnily enough, I did have one crit of my own in regards to the BCA, but it had nothing to do with gender! Too shy to talk about that though, haha xD maybe another day!

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  2. really good write-up man, you presented all the points in a brilliant way, with very little bias allowing us to form our own opinions. I'd just like to say that I was at the Award Ceremony and it made me feel really proud to be a part of such a friendly and family-like comics industry, which the UK scene really is.
    I think the awards really brought that home for me. I didn't feel any gender bias, i didn't feel any anonymity or frustration. I'm not denying it was there but I get the general feeling that we are doing a good job of being all inclusive and that its not really about whether we're male or female. Its about making awesome friends and drawing wicked cool stuff. And we ALL do that!

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  3. I second nichangell, both in the comments on your writeup and in how the awards made me feel. Thanks for investigating the issues and here's to the next BCA - long may they prosper and improve every year :)

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  4. I really like your piece Paul, as I've said elsewhere :) Discussion is brilliant, and I hope it encourages more feedback and moving onwards.

    My initial thoughts when asked to write the piece for the NS were to be as balanced as possible, as I didn't think there was a bias at all, just an issue of how things were being perceived (headline choice is always down to the editors btw) - but I had to also balance that with the very real upset behind the scenes... while not breaking any confidences.

    The fall out has felt very destructive and upsetting, but I wish the BCAs and everyone with compliments and criticism the very best moving forward. UK comics have so much to offer :)

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  5. Great piece Paul. Just one point out of interest, and feel free to disagree:

    Regarding point 4. You say that the committee and judging panel were "not just representative of the industry as it stands, but significantly better".

    This obviously is a seemingly fair makeup for the committee/panel to have. However, to me this raises the question of whether a committee or judging panel should just be representative of the industry they are judging, or whether actually they should be closer to representative of society as a whole.

    I don't know how this is done in other industries - should a panel represent the artists, the readership, or more closely resemble British society as a whole?

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

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