There isn't really much to debate on this point. Historically the awards were heavily biased against female writers, and although they have gotten somewhat better in recent years, they still are, and quite obviously so. With few exceptions I doubt any of the voters for the Hugos would think of themselves as actually being sexist, and would probably consider themselves to be in favor of recognizing women writing science fiction as much as anyone. But in the voting, year after year, the voters have established a pattern in which having a female name attached to a work seriously damages its chance of receiving an award.
Some people point to the women who have been nominated or won as evidence that there is no bias - oftentimes citing early nominations given to works by Zenna Henderson, Pauline Ashwell, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Such individuals will maintain that women have always written science fiction, and always been nominated. But if women have always written science fiction, the track record of the Hugos is terrible. In the first twenty years of the Hugo awards, female nominees were dramatically underrepresented in the fiction categories (Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story). From 1953 through 1973, 124 nominations went to male authors who wrote or cowrote a piece of fiction. Of those 124, 30 of them won. In contrast, during that same time period, 46 nominations went to women who wrote or cowrote works of fiction, and 3 of those resulted in Hugo victories. If women have always been writing science fiction, the early years of the Hugo Award certainly didn't do a very good job of honoring their contributions.
The Ground Rules
To a certain extent, evaluating the Hugo Awards is as much an art as it is a science. In the early years, categories came into being, and were tossed out the window as well, in some cases to be resurrected at a later date. In one year, the Best Novel and Best Novella categories were combined, resulting in a win for Fritz Lieber's story The Big Time, and leaving us with the decision of whether to include this win in the numbers for Best Novel winners, Best Novella winners, or both. There are several such corner cases that have to be resolved when determining how many nominations and how many wins are attributable to every category. For the record, I included The Big Time in the Best Novel category for the purposes of this evaluation.
I limited my analysis to the major fiction categories of Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story. I excluded categories that were either short-lived or very recently added, such as Best Graphic Story or Best Fancast on the grounds that there just wasn't enough data there to make a reasonable assessment. I excluded the Best Editor categories because the nominations for them are not particularly illuminating. Historically the editors of prominent genre magazines such as Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog along with a couple of well-known editors from one or more of the notable publishing houses would be nominated every year, and one of them would win. There has been, in practice, a regularity to the Best Editor awards that makes evaluating them not particularly interesting. I'd note, however, that including the Best Editor nominations wouldn't really make the numbers look any less biased than they do, as the category has been dominated by male nominees for pretty much all of its existence. I didn't include categories such as Best Related Work or Best Fanzine because those categories are most prone to being collective works attributable to a large number of people, and as a result just aren't particularly good for this kind of assessment.
I also left out all of the Retro Hugo Awards, because, as I have noted elsewhere, I consider the entire concept of the Retro Hugo awards to be somewhat problematic.
I chose the four "big" categories of Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story because they are, for better or for worse, the meat of the Hugo Awards. They are also the most stable categories with the most data to draw upon. Best Novel and Best Short Story have been awarded in all but one of the years in which Hugo Awards were bestowed. Best Novella and Best Novelette have a slightly spottier history in the early years, both of them showing up in some years, and not in others, until they became permanent fixtures on the ballot in the late 1960s. They are also the most prestigious of the Hugo Award categories. Very few people would turn down a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer or Best Fancast, but those awards simply don't have the cachet that the four main fiction writing categories have.
For the purposes of this evaluation, I counted each nominated work separately. If a single author had two nominations in one category, that counted as two nominations for their gender. For works with multiple authors, I counted one nomination or win for each author - in the case of a book nominated coauthored by a man and a woman, this would count as one nomination for each gender. If a coauthored work won an award, this would count as two wins, one for each author. And so on.
James Tiptree, Jr.
It is relatively common knowledge now that James Tiptre, Jr. was actually a pseudonym for science fiction author Alice B. Sheldon. Over the course of her career writing as James Tipree, Jr., Sheldon received nine Hugo Award nominations, resulting in two Hugo wins (both for Best Novella). Sheldon also occasionally wrote under the name Racoona Sheldon, under which she received a single Hugo Award nomination. However, the Racoona Sheldon nomination doesn't pose the issues that the James Tiptree, Jr. ones do.
As I said, it is now common knowledge that James Tiptree, Jr. was Alice B. Sheldon, but during much of the 1970s, this was a closely guarded secret. The true identity of the author behind works such as Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death and The Girl Who Was Plugged In was the subject of some speculation, but any insinuation that it might be the pseudonym for a woman was pretty roundly rejected - Robert Silverberg famously opined that Tiptree's writing was unmistakably masculine in nature. In any event, the fact that Tiptree was a woman was not commonly known when she was being nominated for and winning a number of her awards.
This leaves the question of where to categorize Sheldon's awards. The awards for Racoona Sheldon are relatively easy to deal with, as they go over on the "women receiving nominations" side, mostly because there was never any question as to the gender of their author. But given that for a sizeable chunk of her career her contemporaries almost universally thought that Tiptree was a male author, should her nominations and wins under that name be placed on the "male" side of the equation, or, given that they were actually written by a woman mean that they should be placed on the "female" side of the ledger? There probably is no truly satisfactory answer, so I essentially cut the baby in half: I included Tiptree's nominations and wins as nominations and wins for women, but have made a note of how many there were in each category and pointed them out.
Overall Fiction Nominations and Wins
From the time the Hugo Awards were first created in 1953 through 2014, a total of 935 Hugo Award nominations have been handed out in the categories of Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story. Over that 61 year span, there have been a total of 218 winners in those categories. Breaking the awards down by gender reveals that 699 nominations have been garnered by male authors resulting in 167 wins for men. Women, in contrast, have be nominated 236 time and taken home the prize 51 times. Of these award nominations and wins attributable to women, 9 nominations and 2 wins were bestowed upon James Tiptree, Jr.
Even when one includes Sheldon's wins as Tiptree on the "women's" side of the ledger, the picture is one of blatant bias. If women have been writing science fiction since the early days of the genre, one wonders why they have only received 25.2% of the fiction nominations for the Hugo Award. Given that women only receive about a quarter of the nominations, it really isn't that surprising that they have also only received about a quarter of the wins: 23.4% to be more precise.
There have been 297 total nominations for Best Novel, and 62 wins. Of those 297 nominations, 239 went to men, while only 58 were received by women. Men have won the Best Novel Hugo a total of 45 times, while women have won the honor 17 times. One of the nominations for women was garnered by James Tiptree, Jr., for the novel Up the Walls of the World. Women have received 19.5% of the nominations for Best Novel, making this the worst category for recognizing women, slightly edging out Best Short Story for this dubious distinction. I suppose it could be seen as good news that once a woman is nominated, she has a slightly better chance of actually winning - fully 27.4% of Best Novel trophies went to works authored by women. On the other hand, this is still a pretty stark level of gender disparity.
As a side note, I will point out that a coauthored novel has only won a single Hugo Award in this category - the entirely unmemorable They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. This novel is so unmemorable that I initially forgot about it, even though I have reviewed it (read review). There have been three instances in which a pair of novels have tied for the victory - 1966 when Frank Herbert's Dune and Roger Zelazny's . . . And Call Me Conrad shared the award, 1993 when Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and Connie Willis' Doomsday Book tied for the honor, and 2010 when Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl and China Miéville's The City & the City both won.
The good news is that the Best Novella category turns out to be the best one insofar as recognizing female authors is concerned. The bad news is that in this race, even being the "best" is being damned with faint praise. Through the history of the Hugo Awards, 251 nominations have been handed out for Best Novella, and 50 rocket ship statues have been bestowed. Of those, 186 nominations went to male authors, who racked up a total of 36 wins in the category. During the same time frame, women have had 65 nominations and 14 wins. This is the category in which James Tiptree, Jr. has the most impact, with 3 nominations and 2 wins to Sheldon's credit under this name. This means that the high water mark for women in the fiction categories is receiving 25.9% of the nominations resulting in them securing 28% of the wins. It is kind of sad that this is as good as it gets for women, but that's the way the Hugos are.
In the history of the Best Novelette category, there have been 280 nominations resulting in 47 wins. Men have garnered 224 of these nominations and accumulated 36 wins. On the flip side, women have gotten 56 nominations resulting in 11 wins. Two of the nominations for women in this category were earned by James Tiptree, Jr. Breaking this down to percentages, women account for 20.0% of the nominations and 23.4% of the wins in this category. This isn't the worst category for women, and neither is it the best. This category is just your basic run-of-the-mill example of the practical sexist bias in the Hugo Awards.
Best Short Story
The Best Short Story category is the nadir of gender equity as far as the Hugo Award fiction categories are concerned. Of the total of 289 nominations and 59 wins handed out in this category. men have amassed 232 nominations and 50 wins while women have received 57 nominations and a paltry 9 wins. Although the 19.7% of nominations for women isn't the lowest mark, it barely edges out the 19.5% figure from the Best Novel category. At the same time, women have only won the Best Short Story Hugo award 15.3% of the time, which is by far the lowest percentage in any of the categories. Overall, across all four fiction categories, the story is fairly dismal, with women consistently receiving one nomination for every four to five nominations given to men, and coming away with victories at roughly the same rate.
Recent History: 2000-2014
But those figures cover the entire history of the Hugos. Surely, one would think, in recent years the award has been much better. After all, prior to Ursula K. Le Guin's breaking of the Best Novel logjam in 1970 by winning the award with The Left Hand of Darkness, the award was horribly biased against women. Before her win, out of 99 total nominations and 18 wins in the four fiction categories, a mere 37 nominations had been given to female authors, resulting in a single win - Anne McCaffrey's victory for Weyr Search in 1968.
After looking at the numbers, the belief that the Hugo Awards have gotten past their gender biased days would seem to be a forlorn hope. At the outset, one might notice that even though the span of years from 1953 and 1970 is nearly a third of the entire time the Hugo Awards have existed, they only account for just over a tenth of the total nominations, and a mere eight percent of the winners. This is partially due to the fact that for the first several years that the Hugo Awards existed there are no records of who was nominated for the awards. All we have now is a list of the winners. This is also due to the fact that during the first couple of decades of the award the Best Novella and Best Novelette were only handed out sporadically. As awful as the bias was in the early years of the Hugo Awards, their impact on the overall numbers is somewhat tempered by these factors.
But all of this is just rehashing ancient history and why it might or might not matter now. The salient question is simply how do the numbers look in recent years, for example, from 2000 to the most recent set of Hugo Awards in 2014. Why that time span? Mostly because 2000 is a nice round and completely arbitrary number at which to start the analysis.
Overall, since 2000, there have been a total of 309 nominations in the fiction writing categories. Of those nominations, 224 have gone to male authors, while 85 have gone to women. There have been 60 total Hugo Awards handed out in these categories. 42 wins have gone to men. 18 to women. The overall percentage of nominations awarded to women during the entire history of the Hugo Awards is 25.2%. Since 2000, this percentage has risen by a grand total of 2.5% to 27.5%. Historically, women have won 23.4% of the Hugo Awards. Since 2000, they have won 30% of them. This is progress, but it is so modest as to be almost insulting.
The numbers don't look any better when one breaks them down by category. Since 2000, there have been 78 nominations for Best Novel, and fifteen books have won in that time span. Of those 78 nominations, 57 have gone to men, and 21 to women. Men have won the Best Novel Hugo Award 10 times, while women have won 5. Of the 82 Best Novella nominations, 29 have gone to women. Of the 15 best Novella Hugos awarded, only 5 have gone to women. Best Novelette - 78 total nominations and 15 total awards, but only 18 nominations and six wins for women. And, as seems to be traditional in the Short Story category, the numbers are absurdly skewed: 71 total nominations and 15 wins, but only 17 nominations for female authors and only 2 wins for women. These figures, in historical context, should be considered even more embarrassing.
Percentage of Nominations for Women
Best Short Story
Percentage of Wins for Women
Best Short Story
Looking at these figures, it is clear that things have gotten slightly better when it comes to recognizing fiction by women, but they remain dramatically underrepresented in both nominations and wins. And yet, if one listens to some loud voices from certain quarters, the Hugo Awards have, in recent years, become dominated by female voices. In many cases, these same voices grumble whenever the long history of sexism in the Hugo Awards is pointed out, arguing that women have always been routinely nominated for, and have regularly won the award. Given the fact that the numbers show this to decidedly not be the case, one has to wonder what could the basis for these arguments.
The plain answer is that I am not in the heads of those making those arguments, so there is no way to truly know. From the public personas some people present, one can surmise that in some cases these arguments are based in the belief that any number of nominations bestowed upon women are unmerited, and any number of wins earned by women as a result are too many. Those who hold these views are, I believe, a very tiny minority who are headed towards increasing irrelevance.
One might also consider that some of these voices simply have never put into context the fact that they can list women like Andre Norton and Ursula K. Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey as Hugo nominees and winners. Because they can call forth the names of women that have won the award, in their minds they would consider the matter to be settled - women are nominated for and win Hugo Awards. As a result, they continue, no one could possibly consider the awards to have a gender bias issue. At first glance this sort of reasoning might seem to be quite odd, but it is a form of reasoning that I have encountered more than once. I think this line of thinking is relatively rare, but this would seem to account for at least some of the claims that the Hugo awards have been an egalitarian affair since their inception.
I think that there is a deeper reason, and one that will be far more difficult to deal with than the openly sexist or mildly ignorant ones. There have been several studies done on perception of gender balance, most prominently those sponsored by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, and those studies have discovered that when one presents a group of people that is made up of 17% women, male observers perceived the composition of the group as being equal. Further, when presented with a group of people that was 33% women, male observers perceived the men as being outnumbered. And when one looks at the percentages of nominations have been given to women, one finds that between 1953 and 2000, those percentages are all very near to that 17% figure. And when one looks at the percentages of nominations that have gone to female authors since 2000, one finds that those numbers have moved up very slightly - for the most part not quite to the 33% figure, but edging closer and closer to it. This, I believe, is the root cause of the perception in some quarters that the Hugo Awards have become dominated by women in recent years.
But the cold unvarnished truth is that perception is simply wrong. The numbers simply don't support the notion that women have ever been fairly recognized by the Hugo Award voters. The Hugos had a gender bias problem when they were created. They have had a gender bias problem for their entire history. They have a gender bias problem now. One can argue about literary quality, claiming that there haven't been acceptable quality book available to be nominated for much of the course of the history of the award, but assuming that men produce quality books at four to five times the rate women do seems like a dubious proposition at best. And if the complaint is that women simply weren't being published in comparable numbers to men for the last sixty years, then that speaks to a larger problems within the genre fiction publishing industry - a problem that seems to me to be even uglier than the problem of the Hugo voters systemically voting in a manner that has severely disadvantaged works because they were authored by women.
This is simply not an acceptable situation. We are science fiction fans. We dream about the future. Why in the world are we voting like it is still 1968?
Note: Edited to correct some errors concerning Alice B. Sheldon's pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr.
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