Men have accomplished most “firsts” in history, but there are some notable exceptions. A woman invented Kevlar. A woman discovered pulsars. A woman wrote the first computer program. More surprisingly, the world’s first serial killer belonged to the more “fragile” and “demure” gender.
I first came across that fact last fall: the world’s first serial killer was a woman.
The statement struck me. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence in AD 54. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfill her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy? The musings manifested in my historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane.
While outlining the novel I set in Tudor England, I realized 16th century society would have shared my same expectations in this regard. And in a field where clandestine activity is required, a female assassin probably used being underestimated to her advantage.
I’m blessed to live in a century, and country, where the opportunities afforded to women are nearly boundless. (Of course, I would never condone an illicit career in real life.) As an aerospace engineer and a flight controller in Mission Control, I am grateful to the generations before me who knocked down so many barriers and enabled my career.
But today’s society still carries expectation and I know what it is to be underestimated. Raised to believe I could do anything, this was an animosity I didn’t foresee when I selected engineering as a major. I never expected to encounter prejudice.
I remember a friend’s neighbor asking me what I was going to study at university the fall. After I answered, “aerospace engineering,” he replied, “Oh, so you’re going to be a flight attendant.”
Then there was the freshman physics TA who told me, “I don’t know what woman are doing in this class. There aren’t as many secretary positions as there used to be.”
When I first joined my work group, I was the only woman. That first week, we celebrated a birthday with a group lunch at Hooter’s of all places, and I remember my new coworkers looking around the table before someone finally said, “Maybe we’ll need to pick a new restaurant next time.”
Of course, the prejudice women face in such fields goes the other way too. During my undergrad senior year, a professor told me I should pursue a PhD because as a woman, I would have no trouble winning grants. For every internship or award I received, at least one of my friends made the comment I only got it because I was a girl.
Despite vehement protests, and what I wanted to believe, I had no way of proving they were not right.
Opportunities are present for women, but our society is far from equality.
And to my greater surprise, that equality persists into the world of publishing.
I double majored with a second degree in journalism and my two undergraduate worlds were night and day. I would be one of a handful of women in a massive physics lecture hall, and then the next hour, immersed in an all-female crowded communications class. Given the vast, female dominance of my journalism school experience, I was astounded to learn of the disparity facing female authors.
Especially considering these facts:
- Women tend to prefer books written by female authors. Males tend to prefer books written by male authors.
- Women read more fiction books than men. A 2015 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 54.5% of American females, and only 33.3% of men, had read a fiction book in the last twelve months.
- 78% of the staff in American publishing is female.
It would seem that women have everything going for us in the publishing world: a larger readership, a preference for our writing, and female dominance in publishing.
And yet . . .
- There still exists a gender pay gap in publishing.
- Even though 78% of US publishing professionals are female, men have 40% of the executive/board positions.
- Gender disparity still exists for some genres. While females earned the top three spots in NPR’s teen fiction best sellers, the first female author for Science Fiction/fantasy was #20.
- Despite progress, Vida studies continue to show more male writers receive reviews from influential publications.
- Books about women win less awards.
Of course the disparity in publishing is even worse if considered in terms of age, ethnicity, and sexual preference.
So what do we do about it?
Regardless of your profession, this advice applies:
- Find a source of support. Maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s a Facebook community like Women Writers, Women’s Books. When faced with adversity, a few words of encouragement from those who understand can be uplifting.
- Do not count yourself out! Enough people will do this for you. Harper’s magazine associate editor, Christopher Beha, says, “[if] a male writer comes to you with an idea and you say ‘This isn’t quite right for us, try us again.’ . . . I may get a response the next day with three new ideas . . . there is a tendency, I think, among female writers to emphasize the ‘this isn’t right for us’ part, rather than the ‘try us again’ part.”
- Find a mentor. Someone who’s been through the fire and can show you the way. Someone who will give you honest, constructive advice and feedback.
- Mentor someone yourself. Pass down awareness of equality to your son, your daughter, your student, your young co-workers. Make your little niche of society better for those who follow.
And specifically for those bibliophiles out there, myself included:
- Buy books by female authors. Blog about them. Review them, and tell your friends.
I appreciate the mentors who have made a difference in my careers, both technical and creative. My experience as an engineer has certainly affected the strong, female characters I write. The challenges faced by women in non-traditional careers are similar but can be overcome with self-belief and perseverance.
K.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane, was published by Filles Vertes Publishing in October.
About Apricots and Wolfsbane
Lavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victim’s bodies—to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Believing confession erases the sin of murder, her morbid desires are in unity with faith, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.
At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. She balances revenge with her struggle to develop a tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.
With her ideals in conflict, Lavinia must decide which will satisfy her heart: love, faith, or murder—but the betrayals are just beginning.
Category: On Writing