Why women-only initiatives are vital for the arts

Writer Ali Smith, winner of this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Writer Ali Smith, winner of this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

In an increasingly crowded marketplace, women-only prizes shine a much-needed light on the talent of female writers

Global chief marketing officer at Diageo

How appropriate that the title of this year’s winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is How To Be Both. The extraordinary novel by Ali Smith, which touches on the way the world sees gender and how that has changed, is a timely springboard into a controversial debate within the literary world: do we still need women-only initiatives in the arts?

As a woman who cares deeply about gender equality and has a love of books, I have followed this debate and commentary very closely. This year in particular, the Baileys Prize has generated considerable publicity, which is of course the point, since it is designed to shine a light on great writing by women. However, it has also served to stir a debate around whether these awards are necessary, or whether they are patronizing to women.

Writing in the New York Times, Zoe Heller explained her fear that that women-only prizes institutionalize women’s “second-class, junior league status”, while marking off women’s fiction as something “virtuous but fundamentally tedious.” Jan Dalley in the Financial Times also voiced concern that “gender-based special pleading could imply weakness in today’s world”.

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