Is the literary world sexist?

I want to answer this question, and I hope that the answer is no, but it’s a tricky one to get to grips with because there are so many sides to the issue. So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts tackling the many aspects of the literary environment and the gender balances within it. I’ll be exploring my own personal experiences and assumptions, trying to keep an open mind about what I might have gotten wrong.

I’ll  start with my time at university.

boys girls university english literature students

There were far more girls than boys on my English literature course at uni. I’d say it was 80/20 girls and boys. Why? Is it because literature is perceived as a ‘soft’ subject, and therefore boys don’t pursue it? Is it because it is perceived as an intellectually challenging subject, and therefore the ones that perform best at school, girls, pursue it? I am inclined to think that it is the first option. Engineering and tech are perceived as far more intellectually challenging subjects than literature, yet those are overwhelmingly male dominated subjects. I think that English lit is seen as a subject where you need emotional insight, artistic appreciation, nuanced thinking and compassionate feeling. Qualities which are by and large more appreciated and accepted in girls than in boys. This is a terrible shame, as I find them all to be wonderful human qualities which make men as well as women shine brighter. Anyway, the result was that there were more girls than boys on my course.

boys girls university english literature studentsHowever, for some reason, I remember being under the impression that the group of top students on my course was largely made up of boys. Very, very strange. Now, I could have been wrong (spoiler alert, of course I was wrong), it could absolutely be that the cleverest people were indeed girls, which was statistically more likely, but why was I not left with that impression? Why was my experience that the boys talked more in our seminars? Why was it their essay questions which seemed to me the intellectually transcendent ones? Why were there more boys in the more intellectually hardcore optional modules? Were they afforded an inherent assumption of being more intellectual than the girls by me? Was I the sexist one? Did I pay more attention when they talked, and was therefore left with the impression that they talked more? Did they simply talk louder, more assuredly, consequently making me feel that they said things more worthy of attention and respect? Was I more interested in their essay questions because I assumed they would be more interesting? Did they have more confidence in their intellect, thereby talking more freely about their academic writing at the pub? Did I assume that the modules which focused more on masculine literature were the more intellectually stimulating ones? Maybe a whole world of feminine intellect was quietly unfolding all around me, and I was too closed off by my social conditioning to see it.

boys girls university english literature students

boys girls university english literature students

Of course I’m not saying that the girls on my course didn’t come off as clever to me, they were incredibly smart and I was lucky to study with them. I’m also not saying that the boys were not as clever as I thought they were, I’m just saying that I noticed their intellect in a much more powerful way than I did the girls’. They spoke out more, and I’m sure I listened to them in a different way than I did the girls. And if that was the case for a proclaimed feminist who was already conscious of these things, I’m sure it was also the case for a lot of other people. So did that make the literary environment at my uni sexist? I’d say yes and no, in a way because you can’t just take away social conditioning, but, hopefully, as new generations make their way into higher education, it will happen less and less. The important thing is to teach kids that girls’ opinions about literature are as valid as boys’, and that they’re as encouraged as the boys to confidently speak up and voice those opinions.

Anyway, the result of it all was that I had the experience of being in a female dominated environment, in a female dominated field, and I assumed and concluded with the fact that the small male percentage was also the small percentage which largely made up the top students of my course. And I suspect that this is not an experience exclusive to me. I’d love to hear from others who studied literature, or anything else for that matter, if the boys were perceived as more clever. Did you have an entirely different experience than me? Were the girls actually the ones who stood out? I’d love to hear some other perspectives on this.

Lastly, I just want to make it completely clear, that none of the boys on my course acted in a sexist manner at all, they were all interested in my opinions, respectful of what I had to say, and generally just really great guys. The only sexism I experienced was my own (and I would guess others’) social conditioning which came from a lifetime of cultural and political immersion in our society which undermined me and the other girls on my course, but that was in no way the fault of the wonderful guys I know and love.

Next I’ll look at my time in the London literary environment, and consider whether my perception that more men were in leadership positions was right or wrong.