I’ve been thinking about the recent PW Top Ten List Debacle (short version: somehow, yet again, we get an all male list and the insistence that this only happened because we were looking for “the very best writers”), and wondering whether I wanted to yet again go through all the explanations about how, while such a list may have been made with good intentions, it nonetheless indicates unconscious biases that you need to make conscious so you can examine them instead of denying them, because you just don’t get all male lists over and over again at random (the odds of that would be about 1/1000), and you also don’t get them because somehow all the best books are consistently written by guys (which we all know from experience that just isn’t true).

But via jimhines, I found this Politics Daily article by Lizzie Skurnick that says it all better than I can in so many ways.

I got a glimmer of an answer last year as I sat in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge. Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were “ambitious.” Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . “small.” “Domestic.” “Unam –” what’s the word? “– bititous.”

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “ambitious,” what I think is “Nice try. Better luck next time. Keep shooting for the stars!” I think many things, but never among them is the word Congratulations.

But, incredulous, again and again, I watched as we pushed aside works that everyone acknowledged were more finely wrought, were, in fact, competently wrought, for books that had shot high but fallen short. And every time the book that won was a man’s.

This is how bias happens, and not just among writers. (I’ve heard similar discussions among, say, scientists.) By redefining away the very things that make a story or other endeavor successful (writing that’s merely “well-wrought,” research that’s merely the result of “hard work”) and declaring them inferior to some other thing that it makes dubious sense for them to be inferior to (including “ambitious but failed,” well, anything). As Skurnick says:

But that’s the problem with sexism. It doesn’t happen because people — male or female — think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man’s wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he’d be a better manager. It’s not that women shouldn’t be up for the big awards. It’s just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men … I don’t know … deserve them.

Bias is tricky. And asking that we all be on the lookout for our own biases is not a matter of wanting mediocre work to get lauded in order to meet some quota or other. It’s a matter of wanting the same portion of the very best work not to be overlooked time and again — because we want to — need to — see it, and read it, and have it out there in the world where it can enrich our lives.

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