Where Are The Women With BIG Ideas?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 9, 2009 9:00 am

I’m off to the city for a panel in recognition of International Women’s Day. Given the theme, I’d like to point readers to a recent piece from The Guardian asking ‘Where are the books by women with big ideas?

Books like Freakonomics, defining significant cultural or economic trends with a punchy title, never seem to be produced by women. But why?

As you can imagine, I have much to say on the topic coming soon, but am first interested in your reaction to the article. Here’s an excerpt to get us started:

Julia Cheiffetz, blogging at publishing website HarperStudio, dubs the genre “big think” books – making serious non-fiction subjects accessible and popular. “The point is, all of them promise access to a club whose sole activity is the exchange of ideas; all of them promise, however covertly, to make us feel smarter. And all of them are written by men,” she writes, also singling out The World is Flat by Thomas L Friedman, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

“It is hard to know whether women are better at telling stories than propagating ideas (I’m thinking of Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, Karen Abbott), or whether the intellectual audacity required to sell our hypotheses about the world simply isn’t in our genetic makeup.”

sexist.pngGenetic make-up, eh? I’m not convinced.

So where are the women with BIG ideas? Before I dissect this one, let’s hear from readers…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Culture
MORE ABOUT: authors, Books, ideas, women

Comments (24)

  1. Kim

    1) People who have to prove that they belong within the crowd don’t earn a lot of credit for pushing the boundaries of the crowd. What’s the difference between a “big think” book and a collection of wacky ideas from some nobody?

    2) Writing a popular book is not generally respected in academia. As my college president has reminded us, peer review is what’s important. So for anyone who needs to prove herself, academic journals (or other academic publications – the humanists can write books, as long as they aren’t popular) are the way to go.

    3) Before a book can be published, the author needs to sell the idea to a publisher. I wonder if there are “big think” books that haven’t made it to press. Or if women censor themselves, and write in a style that they can get away with, long before a publisher or an agent sees the idea?

  2. T. Bruce McNeely

    What about Ann Coulter? (ducks)

    Actually, in Canada, the “big thinkers” on the leftist spectrum are primarily women. Naomi Klein is probably the best known. I don’t agree with their views, but of course, that’s immaterial.
    Just to add to Kim’s thoughts – to put your Big Ideas out there requires a certain confidence (arrogance, even?). Even now, that would be easier for men (I’m generalizing here, of course).

  3. It’s a trend in lots of arenas, not just book publishing: women who run for office are equally as successful as men at getting elected, they just run less frequently. Similarly, it may be a case of sheer mass – more men are writing books so more of them get published.

    At the same time, these books are “popularized”. Since women are traditionally more worried about not being taken seriously within their fields, they may steer away from writing something that is easily digestible so they aren’t tagged as less academic.

    There are great women, like Deborah Tannen who have been able to do it. We just need to get out there more and talk about it.

  4. Erasmussimo

    OK, I’m going to be the bad guy here and suggest that there is an explanation for this observation. I’ll start off with the well-documented observation that there has never in history been any recorded matriarchal culture. Before you reach for your reference books, let me emphasize that I’m talking about matriarchy, not matrilinearity. There are lots of matrilinear societies, because paternity is so much harder to establish than maternity. But there has never been a documented case of a matriarchal society.

    This raises a big question, very similar to the question raised above: WHY is there such a strong imbalance? We can’t just chalk this one up to cultural idiosyncrasy — this is a universal attribute of cultures. I suggest that the best hypothesis to explain this striking anomaly is the reproductive advantage that accrues to men — but not women — who wield power. Inasmuch as publishing a “big shot” book is part of an endeavor to gain a form of power, it would seem to me that men have a stronger incentive to do this than women. This doesn’t preclude women from seeking power, but it explains a differential between men and women in such endeavors.

  5. What about Rachel Carson – Silent Spring?

  6. Sarah Hrdy is an excellent example. She’s written the big books. She also is independently wealthy.

    A man (traditionally) does not have to be independently wealthy to write the big books. He just needs a wife who is capable of being a secretary, editor, etc. etc. and who can take care of every other thing that has to be taken care of. If more women historically had “wives” (let’s leave sex/gender out of this and speak only of day to day tasking) then there would be more big-book women.

    Yes, at some point there are genes lurking around here, but the primary explanation at almost all levels is culture.

  7. BJN

    Ayn Rand? She isn’t famous for writing in the same genre but her ideas remain influential (especially with younger narcissistic male would-be-entrepreneurs).

  8. Erasmussimo

    Greg, I disagree that the primary answer is culture, although I admit that the judgement as to the relative importance of culture versus genetics is a subjective one. My reason for putting more emphasis on the genetic component is the universality of patriarchy. That, for me, is a compellingly salient point. If cultural factors dominated this issue, then we’d expect to see more cultural variation in patriarchy, but it’s universal. That’s the point that I just can’t get down my craw.

  9. A woman with a big idea:

    Lynn Margulis : The endosymbiont theory and mitochondria and chloroplasts.

  10. onymous

    Is this a bad thing? Freakonomics seems to have been panned by everyone I know who knows anything about the subject, and Thomas Friedman is an awful writer with little of interest to say about anything. I take Naomi Klein much more seriously than these “big idea” writers.

  11. In part I think it depends on your definition of big idea, whether big equals important, and whether truth equals big. I used to notice that men in social conversation talked about the “big”–economics, politics, even sports. Big as in grand, encompassing large entities. Women usually talked about more personal matters, even in relation to these big issues. But I’m noticing lately that in our social circle, where men are equally involved in child rearing, both men and women tend to focus on the personal, anecdotes about kids, the macro in relation to the micro. I’m not sure what conclusions to draw, but it’s an observation. Personally, I think the books about big ideas are often big b.s., though not always. I think that broad rather than big would be a more accurate term. A more intimate focus is just as important, and because it’s a smaller focus is more likely to give an accurate analysis of its subject.

  12. Erasmussimo

    I decided to do a quickie assessment of the magnitude of the problem. So I went to my library and selected the biology/cognitive science/linguistics section because it’s not primarily mathematical in nature — just to remove any possible bias that might (or might not!) be at work there. I then examined the authors of each of the books, discarding any books that were edited compilations or had multiple authors. I also stopped the count when I reached 100 books. The results: 98 male authors, 2 female authors. I was thunderstruck by this result. I never pay attention to the author of a book unless I’m buying a book from somebody whose work I already appreciate. And surely a few authors contributed multiple books to the set: Steven Jay Gould, Derek Bickerton, Jared Diamond, Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and David Quammen all had multiple entries in my library. Even so, I was stunned by the huge disparity here; I would have expected to see more women in the mix.

    I hasten to add that I don’t denigrate the efforts of those female authors whose works I have read. I loved Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s “Mother Nature”, and I hold great admiration for the work of Lida Cosmides.

    Expanding my search, I scoured my library looking for female authors. I don’t read fiction. In the history section, I found Lisa Jardine and Antonia Fraser, both excellent authors. There were a couple more. That was it.

    This is extremely serious!!! Books are one of the important means by which our intellectual culture is developed and transmitted, and men appear to control 98% of this medium (again, non-fiction only!). Perhaps I have a subconscious prejudice against female authors; perhaps the true number is only 90%. Even if that were the case, that is still a totally unacceptable number. It is imperative that we address the issue and figure out what can be done. And the first step in that process is understanding the problem. I strongly urge everybody here to put the politics aside and concentrate on understanding the problem. I have taught too many people to accept the hypothesis that women are intellectually incapable of writing books. Nor do I accept the claim that it’s just some sort of male conspiracy that’s holding them back. I have already mentioned the role of genetics, but that’s a blunt, vague hypothesis; I believe that we can come up with something more specific, more detailed, that can be applied constructively to the problem.

  13. This article in today’s Slate, though mostly about fiction and poetry, is pretty relevant. A quote:
    “The clash between literary ambition and family demands, between truth-telling and propriety, between the longing to express oneself and the inadequacy of the available commercial forms in which to do so, made for a lot of careers that went off the rails or never quite got on them.”

  14. gina

    A couple of people reflect my thoughts, which is that in general (I’m sure there are exceptions that prove the “rule”) women tend towards families. In two-parent households this gives one of the parties the physical and cultural advantage of pushing forward and focusing like a “laser” towards advancement, while the female energy is is spread out. Depth vs Breadth. If you value depth you will consider this spread of energy as “dissipated” because it doesn’t take you towards a specific measureable goal, while if you value breadth, you may consider this form of energy movement as meaningful in a different way. In a full life you’ll need both, but each can get by for a while.

  15. Zirp

    Over at GalleyCat, they’re not quite convinced, and shoehorn Susan Faludi and Naomi Klein into the “explain-it-all” category. “But we did find Cheiffetz’s distinction between ‘storytellers’ and ‘big thinkers’, and the suggestion that these two types of writing might play out along gender lines at least as far as what sells, intriguing,” they add.

    I simply don’t see how one could have a harder time “shoehorning” The Shock Doctrine into that category than The Black Swan or The World is Flat. If anything Taleb (“My imaginary statistician has never heard of Bayesian probability!”) and Friedman (“My imaginary cab driver agrees with me!”) lean on parable and anecdote far more often, why don’t they get slotted into the “Storytelling” category?

  16. They’re in the industry and academia, having and implementing their big ideas. Also I don’t think anybody makes a big number of the fact that they’re women. I know since I’ve worked with one.

    Practically the “big idea” celebrities you read and hear about in the media are completely different people, experts on self promotion.

    But I guess we live in a celebrity and attention grabbing world anyway. Substance hasn’t mattered for a long time.

  17. It’s unfair to compare Taleb and Friedman; the former’s ideas are much more thought provoking. As for Naomi Klein, she is a flag waving leftist, but does a good job of chronicling.

    I think of the correct statements to ask is “Why aren’t there more women in investigative journalism”?

  18. csrster

    Judith Rich Harris?

  19. Lewis

    One of the things I tend to notice any time this sort of topic, why don’t women do more _____, it isn’t right that women don’t do more _______, the glass ceiling argument, I am forced to ask if someone is making an argument for equality of oppurtunity or equality of outcome.

    My understanding though a layman’s one is that in any measure of ability or physical attiribute the statistics show the male graphs being flatter, more men at both extremes.

    These conversations tend to leave out that while there are more men at the top (published in this case) there are also more men at the bottom.

    Much is made of the derth of female CEOs or women at various views of the ‘top’ but little about the derth shown here: http://stats.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cftb0229.pdf

    5,071 of 5,488 occupational fatalities occured to men.

    Please don’t simply ask why aren’t there more women at the top without also noting that there also aren’t more women at the bottom.

  20. Lewis

    This article by a woman, Christina Hoff Sommers, who I would suggest has big ideas as the author of “Who Stole Feminism” and “The War on Boys” may be of interest to those with interest in science.

    http://www.american.com/archive/2008/march-april-magazine-contents/why-can2019t-a-woman-be-more-like-a-man?portal_status_message=Changes%20saved.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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