Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Who is reviewed at the SBL Annual Meeting?

Every year in late November, approximately 4,500 biblical scholars from all around the world meet up for the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Annual Meeting in a US city. The SBL Annual Meeting is among the largest international meeting places for scholars working in the fields of Biblical and Religious Studies and is a main event for anyone specialising in biblical and related writings. For four days, papers are presented, sessions are attended and recent publications are discussed.

Among the most prestigious sessions at the Annual Meetings are review sessions and sessions set up in honour of the research or the career of a scholar. Over the last five years, the SBL has hosted approximately 30-35 review sessions and 10-15 honorary sessions each year. These sessions showcase the work of a scholar and tend to be well attended. They are likely to boost book sales and be career building, and they may be part of the process of authorising the status, or the memory, of a scholar as a leading figure in his or her field. Review sessions are important also because scholars in Biblical Studies are still associated with and recognised primarily for their books. Given that review and honorary sessions are likely to be important, the question of who gets their books reviewed, how and, where, warrants some attention.

In this blog post, I focus on one aspect of this question by asking how many female scholars get their books reviewed, how many honorary sessions are set up to celebrate women’s careers and how this compares to their male colleagues. I have gone systematically through the SBL Annual Meeting programme books from 2011 to 2015, counting review sessions and honorary sessions, looking for the relative distribution of men and women. (Other aspects deserve attention as well. For instance, ethnicity, or the intersection of gender and ethnicity, have not been dealt with here.)

Review sessions

Fig. 1
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
Authors/editors having their books reviewed, total
43
34
34
38
49
Men having their books reviewed
33
22
27
28
32
Women having their books reviewed
10
12
7
10
17

This overview shows the total number of authors/editors having their books reviewed at the SBL Annual Meetings over the last five years and the distribution of male and female authors/editors.
One general tendency is apparent: many of the books reviewed at the SBL are authored or edited by men. Between 64 and 76 % of authors and editors having their books reviewed from 2011 to 2015 were men, while between 36 and 24% of the authors/editors were women. In share numbers, the male dominance is obvious. However, since, according to the 2015 Society Report approximately 75% of SBL members are in fact men, the numbers are not unreasonable per se.
Two further tendencies should be noted, though. First, many of the review sessions devoted to books published by women are either hosted by SBL groups dedicated to studies of gender and/or women, or they are special sessions with such a thematic focus. This does not reduce the importance of these review sessions in any way, but this tendency implies that in the remaining review sessions organised by SBL groups and sessions that do not focus on gender issues, in particular, the relative amount of reviews of books published by women is lower.
The second tendency deserves some additional attention; namely, the distribution of sessions devoted fully to one single male or female scholar and his/her book.

Fig. 2
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
Sessions fully devoted to one single author/editor, total
23
14
20
25
26
Sessions devoted to men
19
12
18
20
21
Sessions devoted to women
4
2
2
5
5

While Fig.1 shows the total of all authors/editors having their books reviewed during an Annual Meeting, Fig. 2 counts the number of sessions dedicated fully to one single author/editor and his or her book. The figure shows that between 80 and 90% of all book review sessions devoted in their entirety to one author or editor are dedicated to male scholars and their books. Hence, when focusing on these particular sessions, the number of female scholars and their books are low. In other words, at the occasions when books published by women are reviewed women have a higher tendency to either share the session and, hence the attention with another or many other colleagues. Alternatively, the woman is part of a team of authors and editors and shares the session with them. Either way, the frequency of a session devoted to a single, female, author/editor is remarkably low.
Honorary sessions
My search through the programme books from 2011-2015 also included a look at honorary sessions.  

Fig. 3
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
Honourees, total
20
7
13
12
8
Male honourees
17
5
12
10
7
Female honourees
3
2
1
2
1

Fig. 3 shows the number of honourees from 2011 to 2015, and the distribution of male and female scholars being honoured. I defined an honorary session as an event organised in honour of a particular scholar to celebrate his or her career or scholarship, his/her life or contribution to a field, or a session set up to celebrate an awardee.
The general tendency is clear: sessions honouring a female scholar and her contribution to the field are rare. On average, 13% of the honorary sessions are dedicated to women. In share numbers, one might say that sessions in honour of women’s scholarship and careers are as good as non-existent (The total number of program sessions over the years 2011-2015 has varied between 449 and 523, according to the 2015 Society Report). From 2011-2015, there were never more than three such sessions in honour of women at any Annual Meeting. In 2013 and 2015, there was only one.
It should be noted that my definition of an honorary session did not include sessions dedicated to male scholars serving an “emblematical” function in the sense that their names are representing a particular perspective or way of thinking. Hence, sessions attributed to the work and impact of, e.g. Kierkegaard, Bultman, Tillich, or Bonhoeffer were not taken into consideration. If they were included, which they arguably could be, as they show how the memory of exceptional male scholarship is kept alive, the relative percentage of female honourees would have been even lower than 10%. None of these “emblematic” sessions are, as far as I have seen, dedicated to a perspective associated with a female scholar.
It could and surely will be argued that the reason for the low representation of female honourees is the historical dominance of men in the field and, that, in the generations of scholars that are now typically celebrated at the SBL, women in the Academe were few. It is possible, thus, that the number of women will rise during the next decades due to the increased number of women in academic jobs. However, this hypothesis remains to be checked and, at the time of writing, it is an hypothesis only.
Who is reviewed and who is celebrated at the SBL Annual Meetings, and why does it matter?
The present exploration is brief, simple and preliminary. There are several questions I do not have ample material to answer. I am for instance not claiming to know the relative amount of female SBL members getting their newly published books reviewed at the Annual Meetings, nor do I know how this number compares to the situation for their male counterparts. I leave this for further exploration. Likewise, I do not have sufficient material to argue why the situation is as it is. However, I would like to make some suggestions. On one level, one might say that the numbers are the result of every single decision made by chairs and steering boards of the various SBL groups. If this is the level of explanation we choose to accept, I am as responsible for the general outcome as anyone else, having served and still serving as chair and at steering boards in the SBL system. Although the figures above should clearly serve as a reminder to both chairs and steering boards, I would argue that the relative lack of women should be explored primarily as part of a broader, systemic tendency. Eva Mroczek has called attention to the fact that during the last decade the three most prestigious awards endowed by the SBL have had only male recipients. Likewise, Ellen Muehlberger has highlighted the male dominance of the Review of Biblical Literature, which was founded by the SBL (here). My findings are adding to this picture.  
I am, most of all, worried about the impression created by the imbalance displayed by this exploration of the review and honorary sessions at the SBL Annual Meetings. When scholars who get a full review session dedicated to their books tend to be men, and when scholars who are celebrated for their work are almost exclusively men, it is very likely that the imagination of the successful scholar will be shaped in a male image.

Thanks are due to Eva Mroczek, Ellen Muehlberger, Torgeir Sørensen and Benjamin G. Wright III.

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