New Book Award Process Aims for Greater Equity

15 Nov 2021 3:47 PM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

by Jane Marcellus, AJHA Book Award Chair

If you scroll to the bottom of the page labeled Book of the Year Award on AJHA’s website, you’ll find a list of fabulous books related to journalism history published during the past two decades. You’ll find books on newspaper editors and press censorship, foreign reporting and religion, public relations and television production. You’ll find several related to race, abolition, the Black Press and the Civil Rights movement, as well as one on the Holocaust.

What you won’t see is a single book about women. Eighty-five years after the New York Times ran a nearly full-page review of Ishbel Ross’s Ladies of the Press, there are no books on AJHA’s awards list about female journalists or representation of women in the press, no books about women’s magazines or women and television. There are no books on women’s suffrage, though we’ve just passed the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

You also won’t see many books by women, on any topic. If you attended the Recent Books by AJHA Women panel at the 2021 conference, you know the reason is not a lack of productivity.

The fact is that in the two decades since the AJHA Book of the Year Award first was presented (in 2001), nineteen of the 23 authors given AJHA’s Book of the Year Award have been men (including co-authored books). Only four have been women. Put another way, that means men have won roughly 82 percent of the top book awards, while women have won 18 percent. Granted, this doesn’t include runners-up, but those aren’t listed on the website.

I happened to notice these statistics one rainy Sunday morning a few months ago when I was sitting at my computer, though they have been there all along for any of us to see. I asked myself how this could happen. I have never thought of AJHA as a particularly sexist organization; if it were, I wouldn’t have remained an active member for 20 years.

When I look back on that morning, what surprises me is how reticent I felt about causing a stir. Raised female in America, I wanted to be, you know, nice, since women often pay heavily for being perceived as troublemakers. But those statistics warrant a stir. After all, this is 2021, not 1921—although having studied women of the 1920s, I can say with assurance they would be outraged.

I talked to others about the issue and we speculated on possible reasons. Judging is not dominated by men (actually, more women volunteer) but fewer women do enter. That fact may indicate a self-fulfilling prophecy—why enter a contest you’re unlikely to win?

I wonder if the reason is more subtle. Could it have something to do with narrow or outdated ideas about what counts as award-worthy journalism history? That possibility merits a conversation about the field—possibly in a panel at next year’s convention. Another idea: Do judges—even female judges—unconsciously place less value on a book when they see a woman’s name on the front?

Back in the 1980s, Ramona Rush of the University of Kentucky came up with what she called the Ratio of Recurrent and Reinforced Residuum or R3 hypothesis. It predicted that “the percentage of women in the communications industries and on university faculties will follow the ratio residing around 1/4:3/4 or 1/3:2/3 proportion females to males.”(1) She was talking about the gender ratio in jobs, but it fits our book award, too. Granting women 18 percent of awards over two decades is actually less than 1/4.

This seems like a good spot to note that AJHA is not alone. Some other organizations have similar ratios.

My goal is not to lay blame, but to offer leadership in fixing the problem.

I agreed to chair the Book Award Committee, and this past week, the Board approved my proposed new process for judging. Modeled on the Blanchard Dissertation Prize, which I previously chaired, it calls for a two-step process, with finalists chosen after committee members first look at an introduction, table of contents, and sample chapters. Unlike the current process, where each judge reads only one or two books, it gets more eyes on more initial entries. Finalists will be invited to submit their complete books. At that stage, we will welcome digital Advance Reader Copies or PDFs from publishers, a change that will cut down on the expense of providing several hard copies and make it easier to share the books among judges. Also, edited collections will be welcome.

It may not be a perfect solution, but the Blanchard model seemed like a good place to start, since the ratio is less problematic there. Since 1997, 10 of the 25 winners of the Blanchard Prize have been women, while 15 have been men, making the ratio 60-40 male to female.

The first step toward any kind of change is raised consciousness. I’m hopeful that the good men and women of AJHA will rally behind this effort. After all, journalism practice at its best is all about fairness.

(1) Rush, R.R., Oukrop, C.E., and Sarikakis, K. “A Global Hypothesis for Women in Journalism and Mass Communications: The Ratio of Recurrent and Reinforced Residuum.” Gazette, 67 (2005: 3). pp. 239-253. Online https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/464/1/sarikakisk2.pdf. Rush’s hypothesis can also be found in Seeking Equity for Women in Journalism and Mass Communication Education: A 30-Year Update, eds. Ramona R. Rush, Carol E. Oukrop, and Pamela J. Creedon (Routledge, 2004).

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