11 April 2015

An Experiment With Gender Numbers

You may already be familiar with Geena Davis's Institute for Gender In Media.  Discussing the results of the Institute's studies, Ms Davis has stated:
“If there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50.  And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”

Now, in SFF we're sadly familiar with stories that barely manage one or two female characters, often with background characters strangely almost completely male (even when the story is ostensibly focused on women - such as the Pixar film Brave - they're apparently set in worlds where men outnumber women 100 to 1).

In my own books, outside the main characters, I usually aim for a roughly even split: if the last passing character was male, the next will be female.  If there are two guards, one will be male, one female (or alternating sets).  If the Chamberlain is male, the Captain of the Guard will be female.  I don't use a precise split, and have never counted them up, but I've always aimed for an equal 'feel'.

When drafting The Pyramids of London, I decided to try something different.  I would skew the background character numbers female to see how a book would read with 33 percent men 'in the room'.

Pyramids is set in an alternate Britain (Prytennia) where there's a legal equality between men and women that has grown out of a near-unbroken rule by a Trifold under the aegis of the goddess Sulis.  Only women can become one of the Trifold, and so no man can rule Prytennia.  However, while the country has become matrilineal, it is not strictly a matriarchy, but one where both men and women are equal partners in marriage, and where gender is not a factor for most roles in society.

Reader reaction (and keeping in mind that most people who have read Pyramids come from a background of my already woman-heavy other books) has been mostly positive.  Readers notice that there are a plethora of women, but find it novel or enjoyable.  Only a minority of reviewers comment negatively on the balance.

Anyway, a while ago I read this post by Marie Brennan about the absence of women in a particular fantasy work and I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take with Pyramids

And it was!  Very interesting, in this book where I'd set out to to achieve a 70/30 skew in favour of women, I created 82 female-presenting characters and 83 male-presenting characters.

I don't think I'll do this exercise with the books that I thought were 50/50.  That may bring embarrassment.

I suspect that one of the reasons that Pyramids feels so full of female characters (beyond our apparently ingrained perceptions) is that the skew of powerful women to powerful men is much more distinct.  Prytennia's Trifold is always made up of women.  And when making clear that both men and women could hold important office, I did so by mentioning men formerly holding the roles, but naming current women.  With the exception of Lord Msrah and Lord Fennington (and the foreign Gustav) all the people shown to be in charge of groups and organisations in Prytennia 'just happen' to be women.

I ended up with a meeting where I added a male secretary just so the vampire wasn't the only man at the table.

Quite possibly Prytennia is, in my subconscious, biased against men in roles of power.  But would a reader even notice the skew if it was all powerful men, plus Lady Msrah and Lady Fennington?

I'll be returning to attempting relatively equal numbers in the next book, Tangleways, and hope that doesn't mean I accidentally produce 30/70 F/M.  I don't think I'll count them, but I'm glad to have done this exercise.  As eye-opening as a white-gold/blue-black dress.

For those who love detail, below is the breakdown of characters (divided up by importance in the story, and taking gender presentation at POV character assumption in regards to less binary gender identities).  I also chose to count all characters, even those identified only as "a girl".

Critical to the plot (F: 4/ M:3)
One Aunt (F)
Two Nieces (F)(F)
One Nephew (M)
One Vampire (M)
A Suleviae Princess (F)
An Alban (M)

Important to the plot (F: 2/ M: 4)
Another Suleviae Princess (F)
Another Alban (F)
A Swedish Prince (M)
A Bound (M)
A Roman friend (M)
An Eccentric (M)

Plot role/several paragraphs of dialogue (F: 26/ M: 11)
Another Bound (F)
A collection of Royal Heirs (F)(F)(F)(M)
Two Sphinxes (FF)
A Consort (M)
A Suleviae Queen (F)
Another Vampire (M)
A Cab Driver (F)
A Dragonfly Rider (F)
A Daughter of Lakshmi (F)
A Warden of the Borough (F)
A Family of Grocers (MF)
An Eccentric's Assistant (M)
Two God-touched (M)(F)
A Pharaoh (F)
A Curator (F)
A Police Commander (F)
Conspirators (F)(M)(F)(F)
A Wisdom (M)
A Coafor (F)
A Page (F)
A Minister (F)
Fulgite Conspirators (MFFF)
A Custodian (F)
Gods/higher powers affecting plot (M)(F)(M)(Unspecified)

Brief role/appearance/dialogue (F: 22/ M: 27)
A couple on a train (UU)
Station Master (M)
Train driver (F)
Two train guards (MM)
A Courser Rider (M)
A Workshop Manager (F)
A gawp of Warehouse Workers (MMM)
A Shop Gossip (M)
Volunteers and Grove Visitors (FM, U)
A Warden's grandchildren (FM)
A gift dog (M)
A horned serpent (F)
Various triskelion (N)(N)(N)(N)
Various other horned serpents (U)
Folies (U)
A current First Minister (F)
The Daughter of a Pharaoh (F)
Hotel doorman (M)
A Roman Engineer (M)
A Palace Factotum (M)
A Sacred Mare (F)
A Wind Stag (M)
Hounds, Owls, Mice, etc (U)
A Grove Administrator (F)
Three Potential Students (FFF)
A Fencing Instructor (M)
A Brace of Drunkards (FMF)
A Hand of Huntresses (FFFFF)
A Secretary (M)
Day Staff (M)
A Foreman (M)
Roman Expert (M)
Cart Driver (M)
Minister's Second (M)
A Chauffer (M)
An Attendant (U)
Dead People (MMFF)
A Caracal (F)
Siege Fellows (MUUUUU)

Mentioned, but do not appear (F: 28/ M: 38)
Niblings' parents (MF)
The Three Sisters (three former Suleviae) (FFF)
Three Prytennian Dragons (FMF)
Aunt's parents (MF)
Cantankerous great-uncle (M)
A Dacian Proconsul and his son (MM)
A French Princess (F)
Mayor Desh-aht (not specified)
A former First Minister (M)
Train passenger (F)
Hotel staff (not specified)
A former Keeper of the Deep Grove (F)
Aquitanian Hoteliers (FF)
A Lawyer (U)
An Apprentice (F)
A Vendor of Patent Medicine (F)
An Egyptian King (M)
A Student Artist (M)
Wisdoms (M, unspecified)
A Coafor (M)
A Karnatan King (M)
A dog walker (F)
A French Great-Aunt (F)
A Taxi Driver (U)
Palace Guards (F, U)
A Princess' Grandfather (M)
A member of the Tuatha De Danaan (U)
A King of the Tuatha De Danaan (M)
A Dragon Emperor (M)
A Tutor (U)
A Kitten (M)
A French Prince (M)
A Roman Consul (M)
An Auction Purchaser (M)
An Artist's Model (U)
Feuding Siblings (M)(F)
A Deiographer (M)
An Estate Guide (U)
An Art Teacher (M)
A Drink Inventor (F)
Four Nephews (MMMM)
An Avid Driver (F)
Unlucky Child (M)
Fulgite Dealer (M)
Artists (UUUF)
A Captured Driver (M)
Nomarch of the East (F)
Gods/higher powers (M)(M)(M)(F)(F)(F)(F)(F)(M)(F)(F)(M)(M)(M)(M)(F)(M) 8/9


  1. Oh, very interesting! Especially as I've just written a post saying your book made me think about my assumptions around male as default for certain occupations. Heh.


    1. It was interesting for me as to all the "unspecified" in the list above. They're unspecified in the text, but I usually had a mental image of what gender they were, and they were almost all male. It is _very_ easy to default male for background characters.

  2. It's funny how just the present-day officeholders often being female, with the historical holders more often being male to keep the gender balance in the book, immediately combined in my head with the known male-dominance of the Victorian era to lead me to suppose a shift in gender dominance was going on; which I ascribed to the effect of the top office being explicitly and exclusively female (thus giving women a chance to showcase their leadership abilities) slowly trickling down into the rest of society.

    And yes, despite being female myself, the fact of having this many named and important women in the book did lead me to suppose this society has a slight, maybe growing, leaning toward female dominance rather than the more customary male dominance (as described for some other countries in the book, as well as the real-life Victorian era). Very interesting that in fact the count puts them at 50-50; we're apparently so used to the imbalance in real life that it feels like the norm, and that an equal distribution feels like more-than-equal.

    1. It's an interesting progression through the book, since I chose in the opening chapters to introduce almost all the important and powerful men. They're just followed by this stream of women.

  3. On the plot-critical characters, I think that part of what drove my perception of the balance is that most of the agency felt like it was in the hands of the female characters. Comfrey is critical to the plot, but past his very important decision right at the start of the book, he didn't feel to me like he was DRIVING the plot. This may be in part because of the point-of-view characters.

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