What’s in a Name? How Discrimination Forces Women to Pen Names

These days, one of the most popular sayings is “Come on, it’s [year].” The implication is that modern individuals have progressed and are more accepting, and that equality and tolerance have made leaps and bounds from the past. In writing, women are finding that this is not necessarily the case, experiencing discrimination that forces them to make a heartbreaking choice: hide their real identities to let their work thrive, or be true to who they are and watch their careers never get to first base.

In the past, when it was beyond clear that a woman’s place was to be in the home and raising children rather than spewing her own opinions to “polite” society, women who wanted to write routinely worked out deals with publishers to get their words on the printed page. To make sure that their writing was not dismissed as female dribble, they took pen names and portrayed themselves as male to their audiences. For the most part, this strategy was enormously successful. Writers such as Emily Bronte and Louisa May Alcott are just two well-known authors who tricked the world by writing as men to be taken more seriously.

Little has changed in this century. Not convinced? Joann Rowling was told boys wouldn’t respond to a book written by a girl, hence the publication of the famous Harry Potter series under the more gender-ambiguous pen name, J.K. Rowling. Nora Roberts, famous for her romance writing, wrote as J.D. Robb to enter the male-dominated genre of detective fiction. Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey worked together under the male name Magnus Flyte to produce City of Dark Magic, specifically citing their worry of not being published or losing readers as female authors as the reason for their choice. The problem doesn’t just affect fiction writing, either. A recent 2012 study from the University of Washington showed that women are not as likely to receive primary credits as senior authors on scholarly papers, and that women are less likely to publish than men.

Now, you might argue that much of the blame lays with publishers. After all, it is often the publisher that makes the final call about what will make the book successful, who convinces a female author that her writing quality and style alone is not enough to garner praise. This attitude, however, ignores the fact that publishers are responding to their own perceptions of what audiences want and will do–that is, the gender gap in writing is reflective of a still-pervasive overall gender gap in society. To close that gap requires the shifting of cultural norms, which is both complex and difficult to do.

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