Today, Kamila Shamsie won the highly coveted Women’s Prize for Fiction with her passionate and thought-provoking novel, Home Fire (if it isn’t already on your reading list, our review will convince you otherwise). This year’s shortlist was, as always, fit to bursting with talented female writers, pushing the boundaries of fiction with fearless stories, brilliantly constructed characters and impassioned writing. Each and every one of the authors deserved to be celebrated for their contribution to literature and will no doubt reap the rewards of the publicity and exposure by being part of the shortlist. But is it still necessary to judge women’s achievements within a separate category?
Awards created specifically for women aren’t limited to the arts. In almost every major industry there are prizes dedicated to female brilliance: finance, tech, business and sport. It felt like a step in the right direction when MTV announced that they would remove gendered categories from their film and TV awards in 2017, claiming that their audience ‘doesn’t see male-female dividing lines.’ Was it possible that the playing field was finally even? Emma Watson was the first person to win the gender-neutral ‘best actor’ category, catapulting positive feminist vibes through the entertainment community and beyond.
And yet with the advent of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements only a few months later, it became more apparent than ever that women’s voices needed to be heard. While literary prizes and sexual abuse may feel at different ends of the feminist spectrum, the mission remains the same: empower women to tell their story and demand the world listens. Despite MTV’s optimistic approach to celebrating talent, the playing field is far from even. Female actors are still given only 30% of leading roles. This dismal figure is similarly reflected in boardrooms and senior positions across the majority of businesses, with the recent gender pay gap report recording a median 10% difference in salary between men and women in the UK. And in the publishing industry? Only about 30% of fiction published is written by women. The numbers are significantly worse for manuscripts submitted by women of colour.
According to this year’s Women’s Prize winner, 2018 should have been dedicated to publishing female authors to “redress the inequality” rife in the literary world. Only one publisher was brave enough to take up the mantle, the rest remained silent with one commentator describing Shamsie’s suggestion as “rubbish.” So as society continues to sideline women, it seems more important than ever to protect and promote initiatives aimed at rewarding under-represented talent. Without gender bias (unconscious or not) impacting the judging process, more women can get to the top and gain the recognition they deserve. Awards like the Women’s Prize - or the emerging Jhalak Prize aimed at honouring writers of colour - counter the status quo and pave the way for equal representation. Without them our bookshelves (and lives) would look a lot less exciting.
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