Friday, 10 April 2015

Male vs Female Writers

Settle down into your fireside chairs, folks, for it is time for some rambling thoughts.

As many of you know, H. O. Charles is not my real name. It exists to give me an identity apart from the one I've cultivated in the spoken world, and it exists to mask my gender. Okay, Charles is a bit manly, but then you could interpret that as an effort to distance myself from a female gender, or indeed as a double-bluff.

Why hide my gender?

Because I know that we read books differently when we believe an author is male or female. I wanted my readers to be able to escape from that trap. Did it work? Well, perhaps, but I wonder if, in our social obligation to assign a gender to every person, it has inadvertently compelled readers to come to their own conclusions about my boy-girl identity. After all, when they come to write a review of my work, it's a difficult thing to mention the author without using a 'he' or 'she' pronoun. I would like to know how each reader came to the gender conclusion they did. Author name? Style of writing? Plot? Characters?

I've always believed that male and female brains are biologically pretty much identical, and that ultimately, we have the same worries, desires and fears as each other. It is society that tells us we should talk in a different manner, dress in a different manner, or indeed write in a different manner. From the moment we are born, our parents and those around us feed us information about the sorts of toys we should be playing with, or the colours we should like. They react to us in different ways because they have different expectations of our behaviour. For example, a boy might be permitted to get away with marginally more boisterous behaviour because it's 'the way boys are', whereas similar behaviour in a girl might be more strictly controlled as it's perceived as abnormal.

In gender-disguise studies, male toddlers are dressed as girls and female toddlers as boys. A parent of a different child is then invited in and asked to offer one of these children a toy to play with. Almost invariably, the adult will offer dolls or pink toys to the children they think are female, and car-themed 'boy toys' to the children they think are male. They will also describe the childrens' behaviour in differing terms (e.g.: more often 'angry' when they think they are talking about boys and 'happy' when they thought they were interacting with girls). What this demonstrates is that, even before a preference is demonstrated by the child, an adult will communicate ideas to that child about what they should be playing with and how their behaviour is perceived. (Please see the programmes listed below for references and illustrated examples)

In another piece of research, it was found that boys and girls' preference for dolls is similar at age 12 months (57.2% of girls looked at the dolls compared with 56.4% of boys). At 24 months, boys showed greater interest in the car image (52.7% of girls and 47.9% of boys looked at the doll first), but that shift was only slight. The researcher who led this study interpreted the evidence as suggesting that part of toy taste is acquired socially rather than being of physiological origin.
"The current study adds to growing evidence that infants younger than two years of age display sex-typed toy preferences, with boys showing more interest than girls do in cars, and girls showing more interest than boys do in dolls. Within sex analyses found that the female preference for dolls over cars begins as early as 12 months of age, whereas boys of this age also prefer dolls to cars. The male preference for cars over dolls, or avoidance of dolls, emerges later, suggesting that socialisation or cognitive development, rather than inborn factors, causes the male avoidance of feminine toys."

To be fair, I am absolutely cherry-picking my research examples in favour of the nurture argument, and for more equally balanced summaries of the evidence out there (together with some actual references!), check out:
This blog from The Guardian on gender
This radio programme from Kat Arney on the colour-coding of toys
This TV programme from Horizon on male and female brains

All of these summaries essentially say the same thing - that the jury is out as to whether nature or nurture produce the differences in male and female brains - but I am most certainly on the side that says nurture creates the differences. This is probably because I feel my brain is neither particularly male nor particularly female, and that I am capable of understanding both... because I don't see vast, inherent differences between the two. In my mind, society has prescribed gender roles, and we are all taught from a very early age about how we should fit into them.

But back to writing...

Are there differences in the ways males and females write?  Well, even if there aren't, readers out there seem to think there are. Here is a short infographic from Grammarly:

NB: I am trying to find out more about their sampling methods - will fill in this bit later

So, according to Grammarly, you readers do have your biases :-p though of course I know Fireblade Array readers are among the least sexist of any reader demographic!

What does the research say about the actual nature of writing, authored by different genders, rather than social perceptions of it?

In a study of texts, led by Shlomo Argamon from the Illinois Institute of Technology, it was found that male writers tended to use more noun specifiers (a, the, that, those, some, any etc.), and that they tended to write fiction in a more 'informational' manner. Female writers, on the other hand, tended to use more pronouns (he, she, it), and were found to write in a more 'involved' manner.

I applied some of the statistics Argamon et al used in their study to my own book, City of Blaze, and here's what I found:

My pronoun use is entirely characteristic of a female writer. In CoB, there are 808 pronouns (he, she, him, hers, their etc.) for every 10,000 words. In Argamon's study of fiction, this number averaged 683 and 559 for female and male writers respectively. However, their median value for female writers was 779 pronouns per 10,000 words, which is indicative of a few female writers with an exceptionally low pronoun count, and this is reflected by the larger standard deviation on the mean (19 for females versus 15 for males).

My use of male and female pronouns were quite similar (405 and 377), whereas male writers tended to use significantly fewer female pronouns in their works in Argamon's study (305 'he's 'him's and 'his's, versus 154 'she's 'her's and 'hers's), and female writers tended to use more female pronouns than males (although the numbers were often closer together, like mine). This is good for me - I like having something approaching equality in the appearances my male and female characters make (!).

However, my use of 'its' was bang in the middle of the male range - averaging around 10 per 10,000 words. This tends to be a lower figure (averaging 6.87) among female writers.

But City of Blaze was written four-and-a-half years ago. When I checked Voices of Blaze (my most recent novel) for the same statistics, I found that my pronoun use had become ever-so-slightly more masculine, but was still strongly female. My pronoun usage had fallen slightly, to 795 per 10,000 words, and my usage of 'its' had increased slightly - to 10.6 per 10,000 words. My male and female pronouns demonstrated a greater proportional difference in usage (379 for male, 334 for female), which again, is a more masculine way of writing according to Argamon et al. (Note to self - must ensure more equality by increasing mentions of female characters!)

But Argamon's work has been developed into an algorithm, together with some script from the Gender Genie. This algorithm tests for more elements of written texts than just pronouns, e.g. noun identifiers and proper nouns.

I pasted 6,000+ words from City of Blaze into this site to analyse my writings and find out whether it thought I was male or female. After three goes with different bits of text, and ensuring I included equal numbers of chapters on male and female characters, my results were: weak female (this means somewhere between male and female, but closer to female), weak female and weak female! Because their machine is based on American English, it also identified that I might be European, which can make the results a little unreliable. Or put another way, by American standards, I'm a weak female :-)

When I did the same with Voices of Blaze, I got the same results again: weak female, weak female and weak female.

No, that doesn't mean I write as a woman with particularly feeble arms would. It means my scores are right in the middle of the two genders, but slightly biased towards the feminine, though this bias was statistically insignificant most times I ran the algorithm.

What's more, according to Grammarly, being a female-style writer is great, because 59% of readers feel that female writers are better. Wooyay.

Incidentally, when I ran this blog post through the Gender Guesser, I got 'weak male'! Perhaps that'll make this blog post less liked than my books...

But what do readers think?

My next avenue of research was to look at reviews. How many of you assumed I was male, and how many female?

Out of all the reviews of my books (and discounting duplicates, or those written by the same reader), I have so far found six references to me as a male, two as a female and one reader described me as a he/she :-) I would suggest from this that most of my readers believe I am male, but I think I need some more data!

To summarise - does it matter what gender the author is? No. No, it shouldn't.

That said, in the field of romantic fiction, which is usually aimed at a female audience, how many male author names do you see? Not many, but that's not to say there are few male romance authors out there. Frequently, they are encouraged by their publisher to adopt female nom de plumes with the assumption that this will not put as many female readers off.

I find it pretty interesting to study the differences and assumptions, and I do wonder if authors of one particular gender do truly attract audiences of similar or differing genders. I also wonder if authors of each gender will tend to write to societal expectations, i.e. in a manner that reflects their gender, because it is moulded by the ways in which they have learned to speak, or the books they have tended to read (this assumes that female readers will choose books written by women and vice versa). And when I think back, could those toys our parents gave us so many years ago have affected the ways in which we read and write?

Anyway, I'm staying genderless for now (and keep quiet, those of you who know whether I shave my legs or my face), but how have you always pictured me? I'd be intrigued to know (and why)! Feel free to write in the comments box below...



  1. I've never really given it much thought. I have male and female authors in my personal list of favorites and as far as I know I've never read or ignored a story because of the gender responsible. I understand the concept of gender forging as we grow up but actually disagree with studies that are usually slanted in the direction the study wants. The chart you posted gives absolutes to results that were so close that the margin or error or choice of survey group could more than compensate for the difference in results. My personal feeling on writing styles is that it doesn't matter if the author is male, female or somewhere in between. What makes a great story is imagination. And I have yet to see a study that gives that to either sex. Yes it matters what the subject matter is, everyone has their comfort zone. As for my opinion of your gender, I guess before this question was raised I would have guessed male. Probably the name more than anything. With more thought I could easily see you being a female author by little things in the stories. But it's still irrelevant because they are very good stories. I'll stop my babbling now and should you ever share the secret I'll just make sure I use the correct reference when posting glowing reviews. But then again, it could be my opinion is what it is because I am... Male? Female? Does it matter?

  2. The Grammarly survey used 3,000 respondents, which would imply that their statistics are both sound and significant. However, we don't know if they canvassed 2999 females and 1 male, or how their sample was selected. The respondents may well have self-selected. Yes, unfortunately Grammarly's results have not been subjected to peer review as other gender studies have. I'll try and find out more about how their study was done. Should have done that before, really!

    Almost all studies start out with a null hypothesis and a hypothesis to be investigated, so you could argue they're all initially slanted in the direction the investigator wants to take them in (is that what you were talking about?). Unfortunately we only ever tend to see positive results published, and the negative results don't always see the light of day (although this has been corrected to some degree with the Journal of Negative Results), which might lend unfair weight to a particular researcher's interests. But peer review is still pretty good at sorting good, evidence-based research from not-so-good stuff. Apologies if you already know all this and it sounds patronising.

    I agree that it shouldn't matter what bits an author has when he/she/it settles down to write, and nor should it matter to a reader. But there is a perception in the publishing industry that it does matter to readers, which sort of reinforces the perception. Of course, MY audience is going to be the least sexist of all audiences!

    Yes, your opinion on my gender could well be influenced by your own... just as I now question whether my ideas about your gender are influenced by mine (argh!). That online algorithm at hackerfactor is supposed to dispense with the bias by analysing text objectively, but of course the differences it looks at could well be found to not apply over the next few years as society moves forward. Or we could all chat genderlessly and it would make for a great double-blind trial somewhere.

    I would consider my upbringing to have been pretty liberal, and most of the time I believe I am open-minded and well-educated, but every so often a study comes along that causes me to question this. I think most people have a little bias somewhere or other that they don't even know about. The unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld once amused everyone with!

    Feel free to refer to me with any reference. Maybe if I ever 'come out', I could get everyone to refer to me in reviews with the opposite gender pronoun, just to make a point :-)

    Thanks for your feedback.

  3. While 3000 people seems to be a good sized sampling there are still too many variables. How many are avid readers? Of those, what do they read? How leading were the questions? Were they asked to read selected samples or was it based on their own past reading experiences? There are tons of variables that could affect the results.
    I completely understand the perception issue. Acceptance can be based on gender, race, age, political or religious leanings as well as countless others. H. O. Charles might be due to not wanting to admit to being called Harcourt Oswald Charles or might be used because, like J. K. Rowling, you feel a need to be taken in an unbiased perception. Since you have already said it is an alias I consider my first reason to be unlikely. That leaves me with three (so far) probable reasons for the pen name. One is as discussed and an attempt to make gender not an issue to prospective readers. Two is the possibility that you are well known already and wanted a name to publish stories out of your usual area. And three, which actually could apply to the other two also, is that you value your privacy and prefer to write from behind a mask. After going back and looking at some of your post comments and artwork I'm leaning more toward the feeling you are a talented female author that likes saltwater and seafood. So if you are actually a heavy drinking biker guy that uses a pen name to hide from the law, or a twelve year old girl that writes stories between Justin Bieber album releases, you got me. Irregardless (yes, horrible word used intentionally) you are a skilled author that seems to like to tease and taunt your fans. Good for you, it makes it more fun.
    I think from now on if I write a review on your books I will intentionally switch my gender references back and forth in the same review.

    1. It's true. I am J K Rowling and Robert Galbraith.

      *awaits film deal and billion-strong audience*

      ....still waiting.

      Did it work?

  4. For me, I care not what gender an author embraces.
    I feel Thrilled to find a Fantasy or Urban Fantasy book series that is original,well written and fairly priced. I like ebooks best as my 3D Library is by far, overpopulated.
    You are a Gifted Writer. Thank You for Writing.
    I hope many more of your series will be forthcoming.

  5. Fascinating! You're the first author that I've come across as actively hiding their gender. Not that I've looked super hard, you're just the only one from my 2015 reading list. Many have gender-less pseudonyms (who knew, I had to do numerous searched to check), but a brief search confirms one way or another. I only started on this search to tabulate the diversity of my reading habits in 2015 (which tend to be skewed due to circumstance more than preference for the most part). Anyway. Rock it. :D

  6. I don't think I really noticed the author name when I first downloaded the book. Then I unconsciously assumed you were a man because Charles is what jumped out of your name. But one day when I was reading I stopped and looked at your name again, because I was convinced you are a woman, and I assumed you hid your first name to not be pigeonholed as a female writer. Clearly, I made a lot of assumptions, hahaha! It is neat to know the story behind your nom de plume.