Do men dominate the Giller?
Something has been bugging me for a few days: before the type was even set on reports of Linden MacIntyre’s Giller win, the rumblings had begun, that men always win these things, that women have only a 31 percent chance of winning a Giller, and so on.
Yes, I’m aware we don’t actually set type these days. Bear with me.
To support this contention, people cite the numbers. The problem is, those people are writers, and writers aren’t generally good with numbers. That’s why they’re writers, instead of engineers or biochemists or statisticians.
First, the probability of women winning is not 50%. You can’t win unless you’re shortlisted, so the probability of a woman winning is a function of the rate at which women are shortlisted. That number is 47.6%.
Well, that’s close enough to fifty-fifty that we can assume the chance should be fifty-fifty. But books by women have won only 31.5% of the time — that is, in five of sixteen years.
Damning, huh? Just how likely is it that women could take only five of 16 prizes?
The probability of that outcome is 7%. There’s a formula for figuring that out.
Tut, tut. Seven percent? I wouldn’t bet on that — would you? If the chances really were fifty-fifty, I’d put my money on the safe bet, eight of 16.
And I’d still probably lose: the probability of eight of 16 wins, given a 50% chance of winning in any given year, is only 19.6%. That is to say, you’d lose your money eight out of ten times.
When you consider how unlikely parity is, the unlikely event of women winning only five of 16 prizes no longer seems so unlikely. Unlikely things happen all the time.
To prove that point to myself, I took a quarter out of my pocket. On one side of the quarter is a woman, the Queen. On the other, a male caribou.
Yes, I’m aware that both male and female caribou have antlers. Bear with me.
I tossed that coin, and threw six tails in a row. The probability of that event is 1.5 percent. Then there were a bunch of heads — seven of the next ten tosses.
Just for fun, I tried this exercise again and threw five tails in a row. Probability, 3.1 percent.
Yes, I have a strange notion of “fun.” But let me ask you, is my quarter sexist?
The point being, you can’t use the rate at which women win the Giller as evidence that the Giller favours men, because parity is an unlikely result even in a system without any bias at all.
This doesn’t demonstrate that the Giller doesn’t favour men, of course. That question remains open for debate. It simply shows that you can’t use these numbers as conclusive proof of anything — unless you’re talking to writers, who aren’t good with numbers.