an old experiment explained

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.”


About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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7 Responses to an old experiment explained

  1. Very interesting. And sad, in a way. Like you said, I doubt people’s biases have changed drastically in the last 14 years, but their awareness of those biases and how others perceive biased reactions would have increased, so re-attempting your experiment might get skewed results.

    I remember lamenting that one of my all-time favourite authors, Robin Hobb, changed her pen name from Megan Lindholm to one that most would initially perceive as male (I guess “Robin” can be female as well, but it’s less common, unless perhaps it’s “Robyn”… but I could be wrong on that). She’s successfully divided the two “author personas” and her writing style is quite different between the two. With her first and third trilogies, she’s been extremely good (in my opinion) at writing from a male perspective as Fitz, and is now very open about her two pen names. Yet I’m certain that gender perceptions had an effect on her choice when she first tried to get “Assassin’s Apprentice” published (despite already being relatively successful as Megan Lindholm).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard one or two people who know about Robin Hobb’s other identity say that she can’t write male characters well — how could she, they say, since no woman can write from the male perspective. I happen to think that she does a damn good job of writing male characters as PEOPLE, but what do I know about it?


  2. That’s a really interesting experiment and sadly I think that things haven’t changed that much in certain genres. I know quite a lot of female authors who publish under initials so that their name is gender neutral and therefore free from the sort of biases you mention above.
    It would be interesting to do this experiment on a wider scale and seeing what the results are though.

    You might find this interesting, by the way, a writer called Maureen Johnson started this thing called Coverflip. The idea is that in the trad publishing world a female writer tends to get more girly covers irrespective of the actual story, but more importantly covers that give a perception that the book is of lower quality. So she invited people to take famous books written by blokes and mock up what the cover would have been if written by a woman and vice versa.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m aware of “coverflip.” It annoys me no end that some books are misrepresented by their own cover art and blurb because the -publisher- decided that female author = “girly” story. I don’t perceive books with girly/romance novel covers as being of lower quality, but I do see them as something I’m not interested in reading, because I prefer any love-story thread in a novel to be a subplot rather than the focus of the whole thing. I often — wrongly — assume that the cover on a book -accurately- represents something of what the book is about. Which is kinda foolish on my part, given how often I go on a rant about how “wrong” a book’s cover art is… (*mutters something about helmets*)


  3. nancyrae4 says:

    Fascinating experiment! I wish things were different, but attitudes haven’t changed much.

    I’ve had similar discussions with my husband who, btw, is my biggest fan. (Maybe my only fan:)). BUT, when I asked him if he would be more likely to read a book (any genre) with a male or female POV he answered honestly. The male POV was more appealing. Oh, waaa! My own husband feels this way. He is reading mysteries written by women now, but the POV is always male. So, some progress…

    Also, my critique partner and I have arrived at a stunning conclusion. Our male characters shine, our female characters aren’t always as powerful. I’m seriously considering writing my next novel from a male POV, but I refuse to use a generic name. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mara Fields says:

    This makes me think of a diversity conference I attended recently that was about Unconscious Bias. One experiment the presenter talked about was the sending of a resume for a research faculty position to a bunch of universities. The resumes were identical, but one was from Kevin, the other from Sue. Can you guess which scored higher? What I found the most appalling/ intriguing was that the female research-faculty reviewing the resumes were as hard on, or harder on the “woman” than the “man”, even though they themselves had fought their way into a male-dominated field. Sort of like women entering a male-dominated genre, like Sci-Fi (I almost choked when I read the quote from one of your “critiquers” that said women should stick to fantasy…WTF? I didn’t even know there was that kind of bias out there until today. I’m gonna go write me some Sci-Fi on pure principle!!)

    Thanks so much for this post/ experiment, and your link to it in your more recent post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: fan art, meta-fiction, and other things | North of Andover

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