Posted on my blog so next time someone asks about it, I can refer people here rather than clog up a forum thread… A more detailed discussion of an informal experiment I conducted, way back in 2000, concerning readers’ perceptions of a work of fiction based on nothing more than the author’s gender.
What I did was this: On an internet forum for people who write science fiction and fantasy, I posted a science-fantasy short story under the pen name “Geoffrey.” (Amusingly enough, the actual — fictional — Geoffrey is a very minor character in this short story. Not that he’s ever mentioned by name.) Then I waited for other people on the forum to share their opinions of the story. And then, several weeks later, when they’d had time to forget… I posted the same story again, under the pen name “Kellie.” (The actual — fictional — Kellie, or Kel, as she prefers to be called, is not a character in this story.) And once more, I waited for feedback…
What happened: For the most part, women who read the story thought Geoffrey hadn’t gotten the female protagonist right; they said she was ‘unrealistic’ and acted like a guy. They did like the deliberate blend of science fiction and fantasy-ish elements. (I did tell everyone that the story was science fantasy, so they wouldn’t freak out over there being bits of both genres in it. Some of them didn’t pay attention to that detail.) Female readers thought Kellie’s female protagonist was better-written, though; they liked that the character wasn’t a stereotype.
On the other hand… Male readers mostly didn’t like Kellie’s mixing of sci-fi and fantasy; one went so far as to say that she clearly didn’t know the difference between sci-fi and fantasy and ought to stick with writing the latter, because ‘women are better at fantasy than sci-fi.’ Some male readers thought the female protagonist was realistic/believable no matter who wrote the story, but some thought that Kellie was ‘trying too hard to make the character a bad-ass.’ Male readers thought Kellie’s plot was weak, although they thought Geoffrey’s was pretty good.
Both men and women thought Geoffrey was a better writer overall than Kellie.
Another thing: Some readers didn’t pay attention to the character’s gender, and assumed that the character was the same gender as the author. (The story was written in first person, and apparently some readers confuse the protagonist’s I with the author’s. *shakes head*) Thus, they assumed that the protagonist in Geoffrey’s story was a man and that the character in Kellie’s story was a woman.
This was the same story in both cases. The only difference was the gender of the pen name put on the story when it was posted.
The experiment wasn’t perfect. For one thing, the sample was too small: maybe 20 participants, all told, although there was a fairly even mix of men and woman responding to the story. For another, in order to make sure the differences in response were not from having a different group of readers each time, it was necessary to have each ‘author’s’ story read at a different time, and it is possible that, due to catching some readers in a different mood the second time, their responses were slightly skewed by something that had nothing to do with whether or not they actually give a rat’s ass what gender an author is.
Someone on Goodreads (a thread there is what brought all this up again) suggested that I repeat the experiment sometime soon. There are problems with attempting it, not the least of which is that, now that people know about it, it would be more difficult to conduct such an experiment in secret — and if participants know the purpose of the experiment, they’ll lie about what they think, as often as not. Another problem — again in regards to honest response from participant — is that lately, readers are more aware of issues of gender bias in science fiction/fantasy, and it’s finally starting to sink in with some of ’em that being opposed to women writing sci-fi is Not Cool. So even if they think that way, they may not say so. Ditto for people who think that men shouldn’t be allowed to write stories with female protagonists. In general, buttheads having the sense at least not to be buttheads in public is a very good thing, but it does make it more difficult to do an experiment determining to what extent buttheadedness occurs.
This experiment was conducted in 2000. I would like to think that, were I to try it again, the results would be different due to readers not having the same biases. And yes, it very much pisses me off that they didn’t like Kellie’s story — actually my story, obviously — even though they liked it a lot when they thought it was a guy named Geoffrey. The issue isn’t “Someone didn’t like my story — boo hoo!” The issue is “Someone decided they liked or didn’t like my story based on my gender — or what they thought my gender is — rather than the story itself, and that is not acceptable.”
I do have some evidence that readers are still judging that same story based on what they think they know about the author. If you care about such things, you can read my blog posts about the feedback one reader gave this story just a few years ago.