Numbers, as Theodore Porter put it so well in his 1996 classic Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life, are anything but neutral. They have weight, impact, are hotly contested. They also have incredible power.
This week brings the news the Stella Count, designed to keep tabs on gender bias in the field of book reviewing, has worked its magic. The count, which records the authors, book titles and book genres reviewed, as well as gender of reviewers, and number and size of reviews published, is now running nearly 50/50, says Australian National University English lecturer Julieanne Lamond, who wrote the report with Monash University's Melinda Harvey.
But not exactly equal. Although the count has highlighted what used to be a huge imbalance between men and women reviewers, it's what men and women review that still remains gendered. The men review non-fiction. The women review fiction and children's books. Women review books by women. Men review books by men. The biggest shift, even in the last 12 months, has been that women are writing almost as many of the major reviews. But Lamond says that because the size of the Australian publishing sector is small, it's easier be targeted.
She says, "It's important to keep up the pressure, to make the case that what is important for our culture is to have diversity and to give equal value and prestige to women as we do to men."
And she's not breaking out into cheers yet either. These counts are resource-intensive and sometimes it takes many many attempts to make it work. She'd be very keen for men to be a little more front foot rather than having to be dragged along.
"I don't think we should baby them, I think we have to hold them to account. That's what the count does. It says: 'We are watching you'."
The scrutiny has to be constant. Marian Baird, professor of gender and employment at the University of Sydney, was thrilled in the early days when pressure was put on the boards of ASX companies to recruit women because it succeeded.
"But that growth has now stalled. Constant action - as well as counting - is needed if the improvements are to be sustained and continued."
Gerda Taro is all too familiar with the need for constant action. Taro's the pseudonym for one of the Guerrilla Girls, the activist artists who roam the streets of New York, postering galleries which show very few - and sometimes no - women artists. Some of the commercial galleries have barely moved a decile between 1985 and 2014.
Gerda Taro, complete with gorilla mask in Sydney last week, was not at all optimistic about the future of equality. She was in conversation with the fabulous Alison Wright, the assistant director of the National Gallery of Australia, who asked Taro if she ever thought gender equity would happen, whether change could be permanent.
"Not in our lifetime . . . the word permanent is wishful," she said.
But half a world away from the commercial galleries in New York, the news is far better. In October, the latest Countess report will be delivered. Under Elvis Richardson's guidance, Countess has been publishing data on gender representation in Australian contemporary visual arts since 2008.
This year, Richardson is mentoring Amy Prcevich and Miranda Samuels as they write the next report. Prcevich says their preliminary findings show a marked shift in gender representation across a number of categories: contemporary art organisations, university galleries, major public museums and also the number of women serving on boards - at least 10 per cent across the sector.
But Prcevich is very ambitious: "Next year, if galleries made the choice, it could be 70 per cent women."
It's entertaining to scan the various counts and see the changes. When I first started looking at the role of women in the media with Wendy Bacon and others in 2013, women only wrote 33 per cent of the opinion pieces across 27 mastheads. It's crept up by a little since then.
According to a report Anne-Maree Payne and I wrote at the beginning of this year for the Women's Leadership Institute Australia, that number's crept up to 38 per cent - but just as in the field of book reviews, what women write about is pretty gendered - business, government, finance, politics, science, mostly written by men.
Change is slow but at least we can see movement in most areas, everywhere except in the representation of women in the Liberal Party. It probably needs some women running a campaign that's visible both internally and externally.
My old mate Theodore Porter described quantification as a social technology, back in the day when we really didn't have such things. But the fact is that numbers have a profound impact only when you share them and when they reveal something new. As he says, statistics have creative power and each category of statistic provides a "potential to become a new thing".
Imagine if the new thing was gender equality.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.