A post in the Jewish Daily Forward by Sarah Seltzer led me to this study done by VIDA – an organisation aimed at increasing female representation in literary arts – of bylines in major literary-focussed magazines and book review sections that were written by men and women. The results, shown in a series of piecharts, make for quite bleak viewing:
Before I discuss the results, I have to be annoying and discuss the study methods. As regular readers will know, I generally follow the Tuftian theory on data presentation, meaning that I absolutely hate pie charts and anything else that you can make with Microsoft Office. This is a very ineffective way of showing data, what I want is a nice spreadsheet and maybe a scatterplot – that would mean that I could find trends, averages, standard errors and all of the other things that nerds like me like to look at.
I’ll also note that bylines are just a small part of the picture, the study did not include important factors like the breakdowns by gender of: the number of submissions received; the editorial board members; the pool of potential writers; and — especially important — the readership.
Note: gender scholar Danielle Pafunda has written a relatively compelling argument for other factors being less important than they would seem, noting that much of the result still comes down to editorial policy and that the selection process is far from passive (i.e. editors actively source their writers). I am not entirely convinced by this (especially where she claims that the superior quality of women’s submissions counterbalances the lower volume), but there is something to it.
Looking at the wrong magazines?
This point was raised in one of the comments on the VIDA site:
Many of the largest-circulation magazines in English are primarily written by and read by women. What you’re saying is that if you ignore magazines aimed at women and focus on much smaller magazines that don’t tend to be written by and read by women, there are more men. OK.
My question: why are magazines that focus on women uninteresting, unprestigious, and ignored?
What would happen if you analyzed these magazines, instead of the smaller ones you picked?
This is a valid point, what is also not explained by VIDA is what led to the choice of these particular magazines and the list feels quite arbitrary.
Some of the magazines are dedicated book review journals, some are academic literary journals and some are just highbrow magazines with book review sections, including feature-based magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic) and political commentary (The New Republic); all of these are left-leaning, all but one are published in the UK or the USA and some that to me would be quite obvious choices have been left out (e.g. Vanity Fair, The New Statesman, The Spectator).
Also, none are web-based magazines, ignoring important publications like Slate and The Daily Beast, and it has included the literary supplement from The London Times, but not from other similarly regarded/circulated newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian etc; all of which have literary supplements. This is not to say that these publications would necessarily be any different (although some probably would — Vanity Fair comes to mind in particular), but it would be good to rule that out, or at least to explain the reason some were chosen but not others.
Maybe the topics are the problem?
Some interesting thoughts on this issue come from another Forward blogger, Elissa Strauss (my bold):
I never bothered to pitch any of the magazines on the VIDA count last year. This wasn’t because I didn’t think they would pay attention to me because of my gender, but rather because they don’t seem to be much interested in covering the things I like to write about. I am talking about topics like gender, sexuality, culture and the intersection of the three.
In the world of the “thought leaders,” these “lady issues” are all still largely niche topics. We get an occasional bone thrown at us, like Kate Bolick’s piece on single ladies in The Atlantic, but these stories always seem to require a strong first-person angle in order to make them newsworthy. Overall, however, women’s issues and gender equity, are just not important or interesting enough to the editors.
There are those that argue that in order for more women to appear on these mastheads, we must leave our comfort zones and take on the “big” stuff like politics and money. I agree, but I also think that it has to go both ways. Sure, more women should, and do, try to inch their way into these beats. But we should also stay determined about the fact that the things we like to read and write about are important, too, and that they don’t deserve to always be relegated to an occasional feature or culture piece.
Essentially, she is suggesting that these magazines need to make an effort to have more “female-focussed” content (i,e, publish more stuff that she writes about). As a subscriber to several of these magazines (though admittedly not a woman), I find this a little absurd. As the comment above pointed out, there are already many magazines aimed at women which speak about these kinds of issues – presumably, these are the ones Strauss pitches to – so why change the subject matter of the ones that have other foci? There is a reason that I subscribe to The New Yorker and not Cosmopolitan (or GQ, for that matter).
These are magazines that publish articles on what Strauss refers to as “the ‘big’ stuff”. They are not the most highly-circulated magazines, but they are the most highly regarded magazines amongst left-leaning, English-speaking “intellectuals”, which seems to be the market that everyone mentioned in this post is going for. It’s not that issues related to gender or sexuality are overlooked in these magazines; they get the occasional feature, but they are not the general focus and nor should they be.
I also don’t understand why women can’t write on the issues that these magazines do cover: politics, science, culture, the arts and assorted human interest stories; in fact, many women do – maybe not most women, but then neither do most men; again, these are niche publications.
That said, I would really have no idea about this, not being a woman and all. So I would like to pose the question to anyone who made it this far: are the issues that I care about (i.e. the ones I read/write about) really not things that women are interested in? Thinking about it, this does seem true to me anecdotally; I find that I have more male friends with whom I can engage with on these kinds of issues than female friends. What I do not understand is why.
On a similar note, the other common explanation that I found was the theory that women are somehow conditioned in ways that make them less apt for this type of writing. The best example came from the New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait, responding to Elissa Strauss’ article on last year’s near-identical list (my bold):
My explanation, which I can’t prove, is socialization predisposes boys to be more interested both in producing and consuming opinion journalism. Confidence in one’s opinions and a willingness to engage in intellectual combat are disproportionately (though not, of course, exclusively) male traits. I’ve come across several writers in my career who are good at writing in the argumentative style but lack confidence in their ability. They are all female.
Now, a magazine can try to encourage women to have more confidence in their opinions and their right to engage in debate and challenge others. I like to think I’ve done my part here. But overwhelmingly, by the time they reach this stage in their career, the battle has already been lost.
I also have trouble dealing with this argument for the simple reason that most of Chait’s response was describing the soft affirmative action at the New Republic and how many women seem to be around the office, if not writing the bylines. I feel like there must be something else going on.
This post is getting much too long, so here are some more responses that are worth reading for anyone still interested: Roxane Gay wants affirmative action; Robin Romm notes the cycle of literary awards and accolades; Ruth Franklin shows that the problem may not be the magazines, but the publishing houses.
And for the record, my favourite female writers:
- Alana Newhouse: editor-in-cheif, Tablet
- Jennifer Rubin: columnist, Washington Post
- Maureen Dowd: columnist, New York Times
- Dina Rickman: assistant politics editor, Huffington Post UK
- Diaa Hadid: Mid-East based Associated Press reporter
- Sally Neighbour: prolific Australian freelance reporter
- Latika Bourke: ABC (Aust) political reporter
Again, I am quite puzzled by the issue and would appreciate any thoughts on it. You can reply in the comments section, by email or on Twitter (see the “About” section on the right of the page).