A Q&A with Melinda Harvey and Julieanne Lamond of the Stella Count
The Stella Count is an annual statistical analysis of gender bias in the field of book reviewing in Australia. In this Q&A, we asked the Count’s principal researchers Melinda Harvey and Julieanne Lamond to share some insights from behind-the-scenes.
The Stella Count first launched in 2012. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea came about, and what your involvement in the project has been?
The Stella Count has always been a collective effort – unsurprisingly, given its explicitly feminist-activist intent. Key figures in its early stages include Aviva Tuffield, Kate Goldsworthy, Veronica Sullivan, and Fay Helfenbaum. We became involved in 2014. Our expertise in Australian literature and women’s writing and our experience as book critics had us wanting to connect the Stella Count to the larger story of feminist literary criticism in Australia and to uncover the gender bias and inequality that we suspected was playing out across more vectors than just the gender of the authors of books reviewed. So we began collecting data on, for example, the length and type of reviews by gender, which has been important in showing how little reviewing space women were actually getting in our nation’s book pages. Our involvement with the Stella Count has ranged from setting up internships with the Stella Prize through the ANU Gender Institute, funding data collection and collecting it ourselves, writing the annual Stella Count analysis, publishing academic research using Stella Count data and speaking in the media about the results.
What do you think are the factors that play into gender bias in the reviewing sector? And how have practices changed over the last decade?
There are many factors at play here, but unconscious bias stands out. There are long standing and deeply held associations between literary value, authority, and masculinity that support implicit assumptions that books written by men are more important and worthy of attention than those written by women. Then there are the structural issues, such as default journalistic commissioning and submission practices that, for example, reward assertiveness in pitching and demand tight writing deadlines. The Stella Count has made assumptions about value more visible and has seen most literary editors make conscious attempts to change their practices to improve the gender balance of their books pages.
Book reviewing in Australia is a very dynamic field. Across the period of the Stella Count we have seen significant changes, such as a decline and then a recovery in terms of the total number of reviews published. Amalgamation and/or changes in ownership of newspapers led to a shrinkage of the book pages but the rise of new publications like The Saturday Paper and the Sydney Review of Books has mitigated these losses. These newer publications have, additionally, emphasised diversity in all senses of the word. But there are some publications that remain apparently impervious to the need for gender equality. With COVID-19 wrecking its own gendered impact on the literary sector, the Stella Count continues to do important work in documenting changes in the field.
Are you aware of ways in which your findings have been used in other contexts – either in other research projects or more broadly in the literary community? Have you had any surprising or interesting feedback on your work?
The Stella Count has been widely reported in the media and our research using this data has been cited by other researchers both here and overseas. It’s been cited in books and journal articles on digital disruption in newspapers, the digital literary sphere, literary prestige, literary prizes, the role of the book review in the publishing industry, and historical research on book reviews and periodical culture. So while the Count set out to look specifically at the gender of authors of books reviewed in the contemporary period, it has ended up being really useful for researchers thinking about the role, importance, and changing nature of book reviews in Australia and overseas. We’ve been surprised (but pleased!) to see this work inspire gender equality work in other national contexts, including the UK and Spain.
Can you speak to other work — either locally or internationally — applying the ‘counting’ model to the arts? Are there similar projects you find interesting, or that are taking a different approach?
Gender-based counts have been taking place in the literary sector in a number of countries: VIDA: women in literary arts, the inspiration for the Stella Count, has been counting US and UK-based publications since 2009 and is currently, we believe, working with PEN international on a global gender count; Frauen Zaehlen conducts a German count across the media, and work is afoot to set up a count in Scotland. Several organisations have attempted counts across intersectional identities, including the Ledbury Poetry Critics Report in the UK and the Stella Prize’s own diversity survey lead by Natalie Kon-yu in 2016. Counts like this are done in other disciplines: we are big fans of the Countess Report, which looks at gender inequality in the Australian visual arts world. In the Performing Arts context, the Australia Council for the Arts put out a ‘Women in Theatre’ report in 2012.
On a broader note, what do you see as the role of research and data collection in affecting change? How does the act of ‘counting’ shift practices in the real world?
Evidence of inequality is often anecdotal or just ‘felt’ by people in their everyday lives. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of evidence, whereas statistics (rightly or wrongly) make inequality visible and ‘hard’, and can set benchmarks that can be met.
There’s a long history of data collection as a feminist practice, and we like to think the Stella Count is continuing this work, with academics and activists working together to document inequality and develop strategies for change. The Stella Count has proven that the act of ‘counting’ shifts practices: for example, in seven years of counting, we have gone from one to nine publications achieving gender parity in terms of the number of authors reviewed. The Stella Count has been effective because it has been continuous: editors and publishers know that what they do this year will be collated and made public in next year’s statistics. Continuous data collection has also enabled us to note changes to the field over years.
Where do you see the Australian literary sector heading when it comes to gender equality? Do you have any projections for the future?
We think there are good grounds for optimism: women’s representation in the literary sector is high and we have seen its various players – for example, literary festivals – being particularly mindful of diversity issues. But the sector – and this Count – has to engage with inequality in all its forms now. We are also wary of the lessons of history. There have been periods in the past where we had significant gains in relation to gender equality in the literary sector, especially in the 1980s when there was a strong sense that ‘women’s writing’ dominated the field, and those gains then subsided somewhat. There is a cyclical pattern of gains and losses in feminist activism more generally, so it’s important to make sure that the changes we’ve seen have not taken root in shallow soil.