Say the word statistics and people have very different reactions.
Scientists, social scientists, doctors and the like might get excited. Statistics can help us understand the world. Good statistics provide confidence and legitimacy for decisions, programs, and treatments.
More artistic people sometimes have a different reaction. “Yawn,” says one of my more succinct friends when asked. “Don’t the people who quote them just make them up or use the ones that prove their case?” offered another.
I must admit I have sympathy for each of these reactions.
But I do see the value of statistics, especially when someone who means well and has an important case to make doesn’t use them to full advantage.
I witnessed this a couple of weeks ago at a fantastic event at the 1920′s and 1930′s literary salon inspired Hotel Rex in downtown San Francisco to support Hedgebrook, a stunningly beautiful writer’s retreat for women.
I can’t remember the specifics but the statement was something like this: Only X percent of novels published are by women, and only Y percent of published plays are by women, the implication being that because X and Y were both less than 50%, there was bias in the system.
This may be true, and if it is, it should be addressed. But it’s impossible to know whether there’s bias based on these numbers.
This is why statistics matter.
If I haven’t already lost those who, like me, responded to high school math with fear and loathing, let me explain:
- To prove bias, we would need to know the (don’t panic!) denominator
- In plain English, to know whether fewer women are being published than men, we need to know what percent of men and women are submitting manuscripts for publication
- If it’s 50/50, then the speaker at the Hedgebrook event is closer toward proving publication bias
- But if men submit at much higher rates than women, then the X and Y she quoted may actually mean that women are much more likely to get published than men, even if X and Y are less than 50%
The Op-Ed Project did this sort of math and discovered that women were published less in no small part because, no matter how successful, they were less likely to submit Op-Eds. And then they created a terrific program to train and inspire women to write Op-Eds.
It would be wonderful if we did the same for women fiction writers, poets, and playwrights.
And just to be clear, it’s not that men should write or publish less; it’s that we should all have the same chance of publication if we produce good and meaningful work!