Math and hockey

My blog post about the Canada Reads gender gap went a little bit viral, this week. (Hello, new readers!) And on Tuesday, I spoke with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning. It was a quick six minute interview but we got into both the math and the larger issue of voice. One thing Matt asked: couldn't something else be driving the results, like the quality of the book or debating style? This is a question that's been asked quite a bit all week so I'm glad he raised it.

Now, I have binged several seasons of Canada Reads. Remember, all this began with me dissecting old episodes looking for winning and losing patterns. And yes, there are alliances and horse trading, and people vote off books that are perceived as strong. Books are voted off because their defenders are disliked. Graphic and YA novels can't get a break. Ditto books by Indigenous authors. All of these dynamics are in play. BUT every panel is different. Different players around the table every year. They vary in age, ethnicity, region, vocation, debate style, and literary taste. Some vote strategically. Others vote with their hearts. And the books change too, varying widely in content and style. The only constant is that there are always men and women.

Imagine two hockey teams facing off in 16 consecutive games. Red Team wins 13. Blue Team wins 3. You'd conclude that Red Team has better players right? But what if I told you the players on both teams were always changing, different skaters and goalies lacing up for every game? According to the math, this is very unlikely to be a fluke.

Tom gave an in-depth answer to this question in the comments of the original post. You should read his reply, if only because he uses the bad-ass expression "null-hypothesis." But in short, the evidence does not support the theory that gender is irrelevant in predicting success.

Some people (cough, cough...men) have argued we can't use the past to predict the future. To which my friend Nadra scoffed: "said every person ever...as history repeats itself over and over." (Ironically, this is exactly what The Boat People is about - how the sins of the past, when forgotten, repeat themselves in the future).

In fact, we use statistics about the past to predict the future all the time. It's called actuarial science and the insurance industry has been making hay with it for decades.

You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger.
— Emily McKibbon, The New Quarterly

Enough about math! Monday ended up being a big day for rejection. In addition to getting voted off Canada Reads (to the Isle of Misfit Books where Craig, Cherie, and I are currently sipping pina coladas under a palm tree), I got a grant rejection and also had a form letter "no thanks" to a short story. Ah, the glamorous writing life. So I really appreciated this piece in The New Quarterly about rejection and the importance of grit. My favourite line was from the writer Emily McKibbon: "You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger because she’s burnt out on running away from her troubles."

But this week was not a total bust. I had an acceptance too! Riddle Fence will publish my story "When the end came" in their spring issue. It's a comedy about quantum computers. I had so much fun writing it (that's not something I can say about every story) and it's part of a series of four linked stories, three of which deal with theoretical physics. This is the first of the four that I've managed to place.

Back to Canada Reads. I've been avidly watching all week, scrutinizing all the plays, and I've been so impressed by how Mozhdah has handled herself. Being under those lights, made to speak off the cuff, with a live studio audience and everyone watching at home, knowing what you say will live on the internet for posterity, that is no easy feat. I would probably crumble. But Mozhdah has been cool and collected. She's never lost her temper or yelled over anyone else. She's taken care with her words and her critique. I'm proud and frankly, relieved. Part of the stress for all of us writers is wondering how our defenders will represent us and our books. Right after I lost on Monday, my friend Nadika - who is a Canada Reads junkie - messaged me to say: Having a defender who isn't going to embarrass you is worth more than winning.

The really nice thing about this whole experience (apart from the book sales and publicity) has been getting to know the other writers and I'm really, really excited for our future appearances together. Omar and Cherie are sharing the stage at the Ottawa Writers Festival, which I'm also reading at late next month. And then the three of us will reunite with Canada Reads host Ali Hassan at The FOLD in Brampton in early May. In August, Omar and I are on stage at Winterset and I'm excited about that because our novels have so much in common. Reading American War, and in particular the scenes at Camp Patience, I had a feeling of real familiarity. I knew the scenes he was painting because I'd sketched them out myself. Go check out my events page for more details about tickets and times.

 

 

 

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."


TOM'S FANCY ALGEBRA

*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:
(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.2)+
9*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.2)+
6*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.2)+
(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.8)+
(9*8/2)*(0.4)^(7)*(0.6)^(8)*(0.2)+
(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(11)*(0.6)^(4)*(0.2)+
9*6*(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.2)+
9*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.8)+
6*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.8)+
(9*8*7/6)*(0.4)^(6)*(0.6)^(9)*(0.2)+
(6*5*4/6)*(0.4)^(12)*(0.6)^(3)*(0.2)+
(9*8/2)*6*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.2)+
9*(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.2)+
(9*8/2)*(0.4)^(7)*(0.6)^(8)*(0.8)+
9*6*(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.8)+
(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%.