Gender Bias in Men’s and Women’s Reading Preferences

 

 

On page 103 of her book The Shelf, Phyllis Rose suggested that while “women are willing to buy books by male writers, . . . men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women.” I wondered if that’s true.

 

Male and female readers tend to read male and female authors in what relative numbers? First one has to know something about the relative availability of books by male and female authors; if there is a bias there, it might skew the data.

 

It is true that a definite bias toward male authors exists in magazine- and newspaper book reviews, books advertised by publishers, and various “Best Books” lists. This reflects the prejudices of reviewers, editors, and publishers. The issue has been discussed by Anne Enright (in London Review of Books, 21 September 2017, pp. 33-35) and the bias is well documented by VIDA (www.vidaweb.org). But no such bias toward male authors is seen on the literature-and-fiction shelves of bookstores or public libraries. In those places I found, in a random sampling of 298 authors, 145 male authors and 153 female authors. This is not statistically different from a 50:50 split. Therefore any preferences that men and women readers may have as to the gender of the authors they read should show up as deviations from the 50:50 ratio of books available in bookstores and libraries.

 

I sent a message out to a number of friends, asking them to name the books they’ve read for interest or pleasure during the last year, aside from any “required reading” they might have done for professional reasons only. I received useful information from 18 women and 13 men, 31 respondents in all, ranging from 18 to 77 years of age. The total number of books read by the women was 442, giving an average of 24.6 books per woman per year, roughly one book every two weeks. The total number of books read by the men was 202, giving an average of 15.5 books per man per year, approximately one book every three or four weeks. On average, the women read more books than the men did.

 

Some women read mostly male authors, other women mostly female authors. Most men read mostly male authors; only one man read more female than male authors. Overall, the data support Phyllis Rose’s supposition: women read male and female authors about equally; men, on average, prefer male authors.

 

The data are shown in the pie-diagrams below. The solitary pie in the middle represents the books available in bookstores and libraries by author’s gender: equal numbers of male and female authors, blue and pink respectively. The other pies are the individual respondents. The vertical dashed line indicates “no gender preference,” the 50:50 divide. To the left of that line lie women or men who preferred, even slightly, to read male authors; those with a preference for female authors lie to the right of the line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Among the women readers, a few showed a decided preference for male authors (one woman had read male authors only); others had a preference for female authors, and some (those near the middle in the diagram) had no marked preference. Among the men, a majority had a preference for male authors; four of them had read no female authors at all. A few showed no clear preference. Only one man had read (slightly) more female than male authors.

Although the sample is small, the trends it suggests would likely hold also for a larger sample. Women tend to be equal-opportunity readers, while men tend to prefer male authors. The results of the survey support the Rose Conjecture.

 

There is no doubt a certain degree of gender bias on both sides, which is only to be expected. Female writers and female readers must have many interests in common. Likewise, the subjects that male writers care to write about are just the things that male readers like to read about. Just as there is a chick-lit, there is also a mick-lit. But men and women, writers and readers alike, also have many interests in common, so female readers do not always avoid books written by men, and male readers do not always shy away from books written by women.

 

Mouse versus Elephant

   Consider the African elephant, a biological mass of six tons. To reproduce—to double the mass—an elephant needs sixteen years: two years’ gestation in the womb of the female and an additional fourteen years for her to raise her elephant-child to sexual maturity.

Consider an equivalent biological mass, six tons of mouse. That’s 300,000 mice. Six tons of elephant and six tons of mouse both consume vegetable matter, converting it into their own unique animal form. But the rates of conversion are different. The reproductive potential of the mouse biological mass is vastly greater. What accounts for the difference? How? Why?

   In the first instance, it’s because the machinery for food processing is different. Both the elephant and the mouse have six molars on each side, upper and lower, but the total grinding surface-area of 300,000 mouse-molars is more than twenty times that of the molars of one elephant. The lining of 300,0000 tiny intestines absorbing the digested food has at least twenty times the surface area of an elephant’s intestine. To extract energy from the digested food, exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is necessary; for that exchange, the internal surface area of the lungs of 300,000 mice is at least twenty times greater than that of the lungs of one elephant.

   It’s also because the machinery for the manufacture of embryos is different. The proportion of body mass occupied by the ovary or testis is greater in the mouse than in the elephant; pound for pound, for egg- and sperm production, there’s ten to twenty times as much ovary and testis in six tons of mouse than there is in the six tons of one elephant. The gestation period for the mouse, giving eight new mice every time, is just twenty days; for the elephant, giving just one new elephant, it’s two years.

   It is evident that in food processing and embryo production the mouse is the biological machine par excellence. In one elephant generation the mouse would crush the elephant, and not just in numbers but in absolute amount of animal flesh. Mice would overwhelm not only elephants but all the rest of us too. The whole surface of the Earth would be miles deep in mice. Maybe this is the reason the elephant fears the mouse.

   We can be thankful for all the eagles, hawks, owls, snakes, foxes, cats, skunks, raccoons, mongooses, meerkats, weasels, and ferrets of the world. They all prey on mice, and none of them preys on elephants. Thanks to those predators, the mouse is unable to live up to its full reproductive capacity. Thanks to them, we’re not over our ears in mice.

   Two evolutionary pathways diverged in the world, one dividing a biological mass into a few large units, reproductively slow, and the other dividing an equivalent biological mass into many small units, reproductively fast. In their different ways they have both been successful for millions of years.

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Note: Recently there has arisen on the evolutionary scene a new territorial invader and predator of elephants. The elephants have begun to lose ground—not to mice, but to this new species. For the survival of the mouse and the elephant, in the end, in the face of these acquisitive trespassers, it will turn out to have been better to be small and useless rather than large and useful.