As modern men, we always talk loudly about equality and demand action, but we easily overlook the fact that we should start with ourselves. Ashamedly, I had to realize this when the book The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart fell into my hands this year. In this book, the British journalist describes how women are not taken seriously in their authority, whether as journalists, scientists, politicians or in other professions, and have to overcome much greater hurdles than equally or even less qualified men.
As deputy managing editor of The Times, for example, Sieghart had required her columnists and editors to provide a monthly breakdown by gender of experts interviewed on various topics. The initial numbers were sobering. Regardless of the department, the percentage of female experts interviewed was below 30 percent everywhere, and far below that in most departments. Sieghart then demanded gender parity from every department head and checked this monthly.
With this one measure, the female perspective on the big topics of the day was brought into the newspaper and Sieghart asked in her book to what extent the readers can make a contribution themselves. How many books by women, a group that makes up half the population, do we read compared to male authors? And that challenged me to look at my own statistics.
Four years ago I started keeping a reading list, a breakdown of the books, comics, and magazines I read over the course of a year, neatly categorized by book category and author’s name. Nothing easier than adding the gender of the authors. Said and done. The numbers for the first year for my most important category, non-fiction, were sobering: in 2019, out of the 56 non-fiction books I read, just 5(!) (8.9 percent) came from women. What were the other years like?
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While the numbers are increasing, both the total number (due to the pandemic) and the proportion of female authors, they were still less than one-third in 2021. Until Sieghart’s book fell into my hands at the beginning of 2021 and I accepted the challenge. I wanted at least 50 percent of the nonfiction books read for 2022 and the coming years to be by female authors. But that turned out to be not so easy, because the pile of unread nonfiction books of about 100 on my bookshelf, upon closer inspection, contained no more than 10 books by female authors. I sorted these into a separate pile and went on a shopping spree. I also judged each nonfiction book by the gender of the author, preferring to reach for female authors. My stack of unread nonfiction books by women currently looks like this:
Impressive? Not quite, because for my pile of unread non-fiction books by male authors, I needed three photos at once, two of them panoramas, showing about 152 books, almost five times as many as the women. I still have work to do. At least this year I managed to bring the percentage of nonfiction books I read by women authors to more than 50%. At least this year I managed to bring the percentage of nonfiction books I read by women authors to more than 50%. Yet, to my not exactly verified perception, it is easy to get non-fiction books by female authors. The bookstores – not infrequently staffed by female booksellers – create a gender balance on the book tables in terms of the books on offer. So it has to do with me, who as a man is subconsciously more attracted to nonfiction by male authors.
So what books did I read in 2022? My entire list is here and there you can switch between 2022 Readings and 2022 Readings Female. Of course, I read not only non-fiction books, but also others, and especially a lot of French comics and magazines. The focus here, however, should remain on nonfiction, including biographies and memoirs.
Since I’ve lived in the U.S. for years, it’s little surprise that many English-language nonfiction books populate my reading list, some of which are also available in German. One more detail about the books, so that I’m not accused of only coming up with the number of books because I tend to read thinner books by female authors, far from it! Of the total 17,034 pages that comprised all of these nonfiction books, 9,599 were by women. On average, the length of books by female authors was 246 pages, while that of male authors was 256 pages.
Before I go into what differences I have noticed between the books of female and male authors, I would like to point out a feature that seems self-evident: the non-fiction books of female authors are in no way inferior in quality to those of men. On the contrary: because of The Authority Gap described by Sieghart, nonfiction books by female authors have to be one more idea better than those by men.
The following breakdown are my own personal findings on the books I have read and certainly do not apply to all. So I don’t want to assign them any generality. Anyway, what I have noticed are the following eight characteristics in which books by women authors differ from authors:
What stood out right at the beginning has to do with the humor that runs through many books by female authors. I didn’t expect that, because standup comedians are predominantly male, aren’t they? Again, a stereotype, because in fact there are a large number of female comedians. But why do female authors inject so much humor into their nonfiction books on sometimes very serious topics?
The humor, admittedly, is often quite dry and self-deprecating, but I suspect it has to do with the absurdity of female authors’ experiences. The nature of criticism, feedback, dealing with female experts in a male-dominated world, and society’s expectations of these women is often so riddled with seemingly outdated stereotypes and requirements that female authors seem to have no choice but to take it with humor.
It happens to them so often that they often don’t even notice it anymore. They only realize how absurd that often is when they tell men, who then react in shock and open-mouthed. Similar experiences with men almost make them feel insulted, but women do it so regularly that they can’t even shrug their shoulders. In their books they then comment on this in a humorous way. And that often makes dry topics surprisingly easy to digest.
Female writers more often address the appearance, clothing, haircut, and other details of a person they are reporting on. In this, not just a simple color like “purple” is mentioned, but “Very Peri” (a fashion color 2022 in the purple palette), and in the color was her “blazer dress”, to which she wore “Suola” by “Louboutin” and a “Kelly” to match. If these terms mean nothing to you, you don’t have a wife who is a shoe and handbag addict and for whom both represent shoe and handbag heaven. Have I mentioned the perky pageboy cut that is also written about?
Something similar was always noticeable in the coverage of the Queen (and other women), which mostly began with a description of her appearance. What hat was she wearing, what color coat was she wearing, and what brooch had she chosen?
Male authors usually mention appearances only when they seem extraordinary in their worldview. A woman who is particularly beautiful, a man who has a special external feature.
3. Family Circumstances
In addition to the often mentioned appearances, women also always take a look at the family circumstances of the people they portray and quote in their books. Marital status, children, the presence of sickly family members for whom the characters must care, housing situation, and the like are naturally woven into the narrative.
Male authors, on the other hand, focus almost exclusively on the professional circumstances of a person portrayed and mentioned. It may be mentioned that such and such person is married and has children, but there are almost never further details about it. The focus is fully on the work of the person.
Female authors also include their own marital status more often than their male colleagues do. I can only speculate as to why this is so, but one’s own spouse and, if need be, children are always mentioned. This could possibly have something to do with the female authors’ experience of unwanted advances from male readers or colleagues, whom they want to steal a march on in advance. The casual mention of spouse and children signals in advance that this author is bonded and thus not “fair game” for unwanted male advances.
4. Feelings & Emotions
Feelings have the bad reputation of being opposed to rational thinking and progress. Especially in the sciences, economics or politics, feelings should have “no place”, because they only lead to irrational decisions. At least that’s what you always hear. But just as there is no such thing as homo economicus, who makes exclusively rational decisions on the basis of the available data, or the scientist, who develops the progress of mankind purely driven by theory, feelings and emotions are just as important. After all, there is a reason why I bought this dress or just chose this branch of science. And they are often fantastically irrational and emotionally driven.
And female authors tend to make these the subject more often, describing both their own feelings at work and related events, as well as those of the personalities portrayed or quoted. With few exceptions, male authors stick to a matter-of-fact writing style, and the few who don’t are among the truly engaging storytellers. Here, too, a disadvantage becomes apparent for the women who want to be like these men and do not shy away from describing feelings: it is expected from women, but is immediately written off as feminine sentimentalism.
5. Mentions of Male and Female Peers
Mary Ann Sieghart, in her book The Authority Gap, mentioned the experience that when it comes to literary awards and reviews of books, men tend to read and nominate for awards predominantly books by male authors. Other literature – that is, literature written by women – is often dismissed as “women’s literature” and not read by men. Exactly the same seems to be true for the people mentioned in the books by the authors. Female authors cite examples and knowledge from women, with women, and about women much more often than male authors do. The social environment of men and women differs in that male authors seem to be surrounded predominantly by male experts, while women seem to be close to experts of both sexes.
Mathematically, of course, this is a paradox, but it can be explained by age differences and who is seen as a “peer”, i.e. on an equal footing or as a role model. Men are actually more surrounded by other men in many industries, and the women who do make it into their environment are often at a lower professional level, such as graduate students or interns. Women, who often enter a male-dominated field, find primarily male experts in mentors, but also specifically seek out female peers. They then mention and cite them more frequently in their own work, also to give them visibility and thus support them.
In any case, it has also worked for me to pay more attention to how often male authors cite the work of female experts or mention their collaborations with them.
Unsurprisingly, a recurring theme in the books, no matter what professions the authors are in, is the real-life disadvantage the authors face. Be it reports on events where men deny them competence, ask questions about marital status and children at the most inopportune moments, or simply pass them over and they had to gain access and a hearing in decision-making bodies.
In doing so, they describe how they share these experiences with other women, compare notes and approaches, but also consciously encourage their gender peers. In general, the authors show higher attention to the hidden or openly presented prejudices, and also report how they were confronted with such a situation for the first time and how unprepared they themselves had been for it and how it often still surprises them to some extent.
Less overtly addressed, but sometimes between the lines, the authors mention harassment. Be these of a sexual nature by industry colleagues or hatred in public and on social media, it weighs on them and explains some breaks in women’s careers.
The reason why this topic is often not discussed in detail has to do with the justified concern of women that they will be reduced to a victim role. They have to learn that – in contrast to men – these incidents are always the subject of interviews and conferences, but not the actual field of knowledge in which the authors are experts.
Also the language, besides the already mentioned level of humor, seems to differ between men and women. Men seem bolder in their formulations, tend to make bolder claims, and criticize more harshly, while women seem more restrained in their theories and statements, and offer criticism in a less direct and attenuated manner.
This certainly has to do with the different perception by third parties. One and the same statement and assertion is perceived differently depending on the gender of the messenger. What is considered visionary and determined in a man is viewed critically in a woman.What is considered visionary and determined in a man is viewed critically in a woman. The latter need to hedge more with facts and data and more careful language.
All these mentioned differences makes the books surprisingly multidimensional. Not only is the subject itself dealt with quite rigorously, but the setting is described in detail that a male author would all too easily regard as rambling and superfluous. However, they provide context and, in my opinion, lead to a better understanding of the actual topic.
Also, the female point of view is so different after all, it helps me create unexpected and new associations for my own books. They add new dimensions, making my own works richer, both in terms of factual information and narratives.
As another result for me personally is that I no longer hold myself back with style and language. Humor can and should be part of nonfiction, feelings can be addressed, details about the people behind the topics that are easily considered superfluous have their place in the book.Humor can and should be part of nonfiction, feelings can be addressed, details about the people behind the topics that are easily considered superfluous have their place in the book. Overall, I expect this to result in more intensive reading pleasure and higher information content for my readers.
And I notice how my automatic look for in nonfiction books by author or author has become a habit. In a bookstore with a book in my hand, I try to quickly grasp not only the subject itself, but also by whom and from what point of view. That will now remain as a selection criterion for me.
What is missing?
I myself have followed the rule in the past that every second non-fiction book I read has nothing to do with a topic I am currently dealing with. So if I’m writing a book on artificial intelligence, of course I’ll read a number of books dealing with it, but in between I’ll always read one on the Roman Empire, the finch beaks on the Galapagos Islands, economic theories, the rise of China, something about the Bauhaus, the invention of paper or the confirmation of the space-time curvature predicted by Einstein. As far-fetched and random as these topics may sound, they interest me and in the back of my mind I am always working on my current topic as well. Thus, impulses arise from these other books, which allow good comparisons, appropriate approaches and new perspectives. I am sure that this will give my books more space.
By deliberately focusing on a more gender-balanced nonfiction author, I have certainly added another dimension. What is missing now, and I admit this openly, is to expand it to include the work of marginalized minorities. The nonfiction authors have been primarily white women, I still need to work on adding more works by non-white and non-Western women to my reading canon here, as well as more those by disabled, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as more by age-diverse authors. I also have to add more books about women and members of marginalized minorities to the reading canon, as well as topics that predominantly affect these groups.
But there’s the new year for that.
What am I doing?
But one more thing I did: as Mary Ann Sieghart already points out in The Authority Gap, men are often automatically ascribed authority and listened to more willingly just because of their gender, especially by other men. I took this as an opportunity to address a topic I consider important as a technology trend researcher, namely how women are insulted, harassed and threatened online by toxic men.