Women’s bylines comprise less than 20% of total at several magazines, study shows

An annual count of bylines in literary magazines suggests women journalists, particularly book critics, remain a “soul-crushing” minority. Approximately 82 percent of bylines from Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books and New Republic are men’s, 2012 data compiled by VIDA shows.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 25, 2013

VIDA, founded in 2009 to encourage dialogue about gender issues as they relate to the literary arts, hoped that by seeing irrefutable, black-and-white numbers, editors wouldn’t be able to deny or rationalize gender gaps in their publications. But the third year of “The Count” shows little change for most included publications.

Many publishers have apparently ignored VIDA’s numbers, or worse, Amy King of VIDA writes: “I fear the attention we’ve already given them has either motivated their editors to disdain the mirrors we’ve held up to further neglect or encouraged them to actively turn those mirrors into funhouse parodies at costs to women writers as yet untallied.”

“Reason hasn’t worked,” she writes in response to the 2012 data, a reflection of “gross (& indecent) neglect of female writers’ work.”

VIDA’s 2012 graphs show the number of female book reviewers, women’s bylines and reviews of books by female authors at 15 different journals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times Book Review. Most remained relatively consistent in their year-to-year stats, though Harper’s notably decreased its percentage of female book reviewers from 30 percent last year to just under 10 percent this year.

While Granta, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review increased their female bylines after VIDA’s first publication, these numbers fell again in the most latest tally, Alyssa Rosenberg noted.

“Gains were followed by reversals, proof that gains were ephemeral rather than systemic, more likely the result of a random fluctuation than a renewed commitment to bring diversity of ideas in the door by diversifying the authors who would author them up,” she writes.

After VIDA’s first byline count in 2010, editors such as David Remnick of The New Yorker proclaimed “we’ve got to do better.” Three years later, the magazine’s pieces are still 74 percent male.

Recently, the Women’s Media Center’s 2013 Status of Women in U.S. Media report also found that men’s front-page bylines covering the 2012 presidential election outnumbered women’s 3-to-1 — a “crisis,” the report says. The report also said that female presence in newsroom remains unchanged by percentage since 1999, when women only made up 37 percent of newspaper staffs.

While VIDA’s latest data paints an overall dark picture, King lauded Tin House, The Boston Review, Threepenny and Poetry for making strides in their inclusion of women, even if they are small steps. King noted Tin House is setting an example for other literary magazines — last year 57 percent of their pieces were authored by women, making them the only publication in VIDA’s survey with more contributions from women than men.

Tin House’s statistics were no accident: Editor Rob Spillman said after seeing VIDA’s earlier data, his group was driven to action.

“It has been a total editorial team effort, and each editorial meeting we take a look at our upcoming issues to see where we are for balance,” he told Flavorwire.

“What I found interesting was that we had all assumed that we were gender balanced, when in fact we weren’t. Now, with a concerted effort, we know that we are.”

Spillman said Tin House learned that while they solicited submissions from an equal number of men and women writers, once declined, women writers were five times less likely to resubmit. Now, editors focus on asking female writers to resubmit.

“We basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway,” Spillman said.

In response to VIDA’s data, editors have listed excuses for the gender gap: “some sort of a historical hangover from past years,” Ellen Rosenbush of Harper’s said; “opinion journalism disproportionately attracts men,” Jonathan Chait of The New Republic said. Editors claim that “women don’t come forward,” novelist Jenny Turner said.

But regardless, the figures portray a stark reality — and that portrait has not been enough to provoke lasting change. “Three years of stagnation is a sign that we need different tactics,” Rosenberg writes.

And, as King pointed out, readers’ spending power may be the key. “Publishers can ignore the numbers,” she said, “and we can choose not to buy their publications.”

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