PhD students Kathryn Hind and Louisa Kirk are talking and laughing in Dr Julieanne Lamond's office. They're flanked by books on two walls and a view of a building under construction through the window. We're talking about the 2018 Stella Count, led by Julieanne and her Monash University colleague Dr Melinda Harvey.
The results of this latest count was a positive step for gender equality. For the first time since the count was conducted seven years ago, it found that gender parity has essentially been reached in Australian book reviewing. In the 12 major publications it evaluates, women authors accounted for 49% of the books reviewed.
For the group of women behind the count, this was an important milestone.
Kathryn, Louisa, and fellow PhD student Airlie Lawson are all in the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics with Dr Lamond. The three PhD candidates worked on the 2018 Stella Count as part of an ANU Gender Institute internship.
“We were really heartened by how many fantastic applications we received from first year to PhD,” Dr Lamond says. “We had people from Law to Linguistics apply, and there were four times as many applicants for the 2018 count as the last time we ran the internship in 2016. There's a strong feminist culture on campus.”
She adds: “To make something like this happen, we couldn't do it without the Gender Institute. It's a really great example of the kinds of work the institute does across the university, participating in these broader public debates about gender and enabling ANU students to be part of it in really meaningful ways.”
Kathryn and Louisa were chosen for the internships partly because of their research to do with gender and literature.
“The hope was their interest in this area would inform their work on Stella and vice versa,” Dr Lamond explains.
“We're feminists,” says Kathryn.
As part of her PhD in creative writing and literature, she’s looking at passive states in female characters in literature. Kathryn is examining the theory that there's much more to this passivity than meets the eye. The novel she's writing is related to those themes. It'll actually be her second novel; her first, Hitch, was published by Penguin Random House and won the inaugural Penguin Literary Prize.
Having had a book published gave Kathryn a vested interest in helping with the count.
“There was the selfish reason of wanting my own book to be covered and reviews to be written,” she says. “As a participant of the literary scene, I wanted to know that my voice as a woman and other women's voices were being heard.”
Kathryn has long been a follower of the Stella Prize, and has admired many of the awarded books.
“I've always watched the Stella Count and been disappointed with the results, but have been watching it get better and better. Being behind the scenes of the Stella Count was an opportunity I didn't want to miss.”
Louisa, who did both her undergraduate studies and her Honours at ANU, came to the project a strong believer in the purpose of the count.
“It's fundamentally important that we know what is happening in terms of gender and book reviews, but also literature in general,” she says. “We know that readers are mostly women, so it felt significant to measure the extent to which they're being catered for or acknowledged.”
The subject of her PhD thesis is women's friendship in American literature; how it comes about and how it has tended to be overlooked as a way of relating.
“I'd argue it's been subjugated to romantic relationships, business relationships... [many other types of relationships],” Louisa says. “But when you look at literature, women's friendships are everywhere.”
On the point about looking and observing, Louisa found that participating in the Stella Count changed how she reads publications in her daily life. She's now much more aware of the gender of authors reviewed and of the reviewers.
“It's not how you'd normally notice things, so specifically looking for it was illuminating,” she says. “And now I am looking for those things.”
For Kathryn, the results of the count came as a bit of a surprise. She had been counting from one of the publications that performed poorly in terms of gender representation. While she was heartened by the positive changes that were the overall outcome, she points out that there's still work to be done as far as men reviewing women authors and women reviewing male authors are concerned.
She reflects: “In thinking of my own book being reviewed, [it was mainly] women who reviewed it.”
“The gender silo,” Dr Lamond says.
Although the overall improvement in gender representation is certainly good news, whether true gender parity has been reached is less clear. In the media, Dr Lamond has been referring to a study from 2015 which indicates that two-thirds of books published in Australia are written by women. In light of this, the 49% figure could afford to be much higher.
“When we talk about parity, most publications are reviewing more books by women than men,” says Dr Lamond. “We have this situation where 9 out of 12 publications are reviewing women a lot, but the other three are producing more reviews overall.”
“So I'd say the rest of the field has gotten near to true parity.”
Numbers aside, the change in the length of the reviews of books by women also moved in the direction of more balanced representation. Up until 2018, books by men received far longer reviews; a phenomenon Dr Lamond and Dr Harvey found very disheartening.
“Even though women were being reviewed more as time went on, books by men were still getting the long reviews and getting more page space,” Dr Lamond says. “That shifted a lot in 2018.”
“I think that's cool, that what you count matters. How and what you count can change practices.”
In terms of how it is that the Stella Count has made this difference, Dr Lamond thinks it's because the Count has been a constant and sustained presence.
“Publications are aware that someone is watching and paying attention, that they'll be held to account and that people care about it,” she says. “That's why it's driven change.”
“Some editors want to do the right thing and having the count has given them more power within their organisations. It's given them a way to tell their employers: 'We need to do something about this.'”
Recommendations of books by female Australian authors
Dr Julieanne Lamond
Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us
“It's about climate change, and is about grief – a family dealing with their grief around the loss of a child, but thinking about our relationships to landscape and climate change. It's a novel which brings those two things together beautifully. Mireille writes about family relationships in an interesting way, and deals with mental illness as well. It's a great book.”
Joan London's The Golden Age
“That is a gorgeous historical novel set just after WWII about two teenagers who meet in a polio ward hospital. It's a romance but also about their friendship and how they carry what's happened to their families in the past.
“She's a beautiful writer. I'd recommend anything by her.”
Dorothy Hewitt's Wild Card
“It's an autobiography. Dorothy was feisty and very left-wing when it was unfashionable; she was a wild person. The book just punches you in the gut. It's warm and funny and really interesting book.”
Tara June-Winch's The Yield
“That's the next book I'm going to read. When I've heard Tara speak about it, [she has said that] it's talking about the loss of Indigenous languages and how as a society we should be incorporating Indigenous languages into more everyday circumstances, for everyone. I think she's got a real passion for that. Also, I've heard her read from it and it's just heart-wrenching and powerful. This is her second novel.
“Ones I've read recently and loved: The Children's House by Alice Nelson, and In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey.”