Canada Reads and the gender gap

For reasons that are about to become clear, I enlisted the help of my husband Tom for this blog post. To reiterate: much of what you are about to read came from a man.

The Canada Reads debates begin next week and to prepare I've been watching old debates, searching for patterns and tactics that mark out winners. But then I looked at the list of previous winners and all my strategic points flew out the window. I asked Tom, who is a mathematician and data nerd, to tell me if he noticed the same trends I saw and if they could possibly be a fluke.

Says Tom (note the deliberate use of quotation marks): "In the history of Canada Reads (2002-2017) there have been 80 competitors. Among these, there have been:

  • 24 men defending men
  • 22 women defending men
  • 21 women defending women, but only
  • 13 men defending women"

Book preferences of MALE defenders

Book preferences of FEMALE defenders

Tom says this trend has been rectifying itself. "In the first 9 years of the competition (between 2002 and 2010), men chose books written by men 79% of the time (15 to 4). Since then (2011-2017) it has been fifty-fifty (9 vs. 9). In recent years, about half the books in the competition have been written by women, as have half the winners. So on that front things have improved."

"More striking has been the success rates of the defenders," says Tom. In all of Canada Reads history there have been 37 male defenders and 43 female defenders. And yet, out of the 16 debates, men have won 13 competitions and women have won 3. Male defenders have won 81% of the time. Let that sink in. EIGHTY ONE PER CENT. Tom: "This despite the majority ( 54%) of defenders having been women."

Canada Reads Defenders

Who Wins Canada Reads

This is a glaring gender disparity. But what are the chances it's a result of debating skills or literary merit or bad luck or anything other than bias? Tom got out his calculator and did a bit of fancy algebra. "In an unbiased contest the chances of women winning 3 or fewer competitions is 1 in 272.  It's as unlikely as flipping a coin 8 times and only getting heads."*

But wait! There's more. What happens when we compare the genders of author/defender pairings?

A woman defending a woman has never won. In an unbiased competition, the likelihood of this happening is 1 in 180. It is less likely than flipping a coin seven times and only getting heads.
— Tom Baird, PhD

"Since every competition has 5 panelists and one winner, in an unbiased competition you'd expect each category of competitor to have around a 20% success rate. But of the 24 men who defended men, 8 won, which is a success rate of 33%. Of the 13 men who defended books by women, 5 won, a success rate of 38%. Women who defended men were successful 14% of the time. And women who defend women have had a success rate of 0%."

Canada Reads Defender Success Rates

Zero per cent. Again, I wondered: what are the odds this is a weird fluke?

Tom: "A woman defending a woman has never won. In an unbiased competition, the likelihood of this happening is 1 in 180. It is less likely than flipping a coin seven times and only getting heads."**

Women have always known that no one listens to us. (#AndThenAManSaidIt) At home, at work, at the podium, at the doctor's office, selective deafness is epidemic. This is why in the Obama White House, women staffers used a strategy of amplification to ensure their voices were heard and their ideas weren't appropriated by male colleagues. No surprise then if the tendency to dismiss women's opinions/ favour men's perspectives also happens around the Canada Reads table.

No one is consciously trying to sideline the ladies. The CBC, for their part, casts the panel with a view to gender parity. The problem is we have all been conditioned to pay attention to men and believe what they say. No one is immune; not even us women. This is what happens when one gender has had unfettered access to pulpits, soap boxes, stages, and microphones for centuries and the other has been told to shut up. Just this week a prominent music festival in my city announced a line-up that included only ONE female-fronted act. Only one woman will be allowed to open her mouth. So yes, I was not at all surprised by the BIG FAT ZERO or the dismal 14% success rate of female defenders.

Strategic advice to this year’s competitors: Vote against the male defenders. They are the threat.
— Tom Baird, PhD and bonafide genius

Canada Reads is a public debate. There are many other, more important, discussions that happen behind closed doors every day. Debates about who gets a grant; which book or story or poem wins an award; which author gets a festival invite or an interview; which books get promoted and reviewed; which manuscripts are purchased and the size of the advance. In these discussions, whose voices are heard and whose are ignored?

And what can we, as thoughtful citizens of this planet, do to overcome our own unconscious leanings? First, we acknowledge our biases. And then we fight against them. We listen to women. Really listen. We amplify their voices and give them credit to ensure they are heard. We don't just allow them the floor, we thoughtfully consider what they are saying. I'm not trying to silence the guys here. As this blog post has shown, men often have valuable insights to offer. But we are really good at listening to the gents. So let's give the ladies the same courtesy.

Last word goes to Tom: "Strategic advice to this year's competitors: Vote against the male defenders. They are the threat."


*A simple approximate formula (which pretends 54% of defenders are women each year) is: 0.46^16+16*(0.46)^(15)*(0.54)^(1)+(16*15/2)*(0.46)^(14)*(0.54)^(2)+(16*15*14/6)*(0.46)^(13)*(0.54)^(3) = 0.0044 or 0.44%.

The exact formula which takes into account how many women defenders actually competed each year (2, 3, or 4) is:
(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(11)*(0.6)^(4)*(0.8) = 0.0037 or 0.37%

** The chance that no woman defending a woman would win is (0.8)^(10)x(0.6)^(4)x(0.4)= 0.0056  or 0.56%.