Big Journalism’s Gender Disparity Dilemma

By Grace Bello March 7th, 2014

Every year since 2009, VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, has tracked the gender disparity among journalists, critics, and authors reviewed across top magazines. They call this annual data crunch the VIDA count. The results? A shocking amount of publications continue to favor male writers.

New Republic has managed its worst year yet since we began counting!” wrote Amy King on VIDA’s blog. The count revealed that the magazine was one of the worst offenders; in 2013, only seven percent of its book critics were female.

“The more prestigious the space, the fewer female voices there are,” VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu said at a May 2013 NBCC panel discussion at the Center for Fiction. Indeed, at The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker, men comprised about 75 percent of contributors in 2013.

Why is the gender imbalance so stark? Amanda Hess at Slate pointed to staff editors who are overwhelmingly male: “Of the top 22 editors listed on the [New Republic‘s] masthead—the people responsible for guiding the direction of the magazine and assigning writers to stories — only five are women … The fact is that more women in the magazine means fewer men in the magazine, and that seems to be a tough thing for the men who run these magazines to accept and execute.”

Since the VIDA count arrived on the scene, more editors – male and female – have prioritized seeking additional female contributors. Over at the literary magazine, Tin House, Rob Spillman discovered that female writers who received rejections but were invited to submit again “were five times less likely to submit than their male counterparts,” he told Flavorwire. “So we basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway, and at the same time made a concerted effort to re-ask women to contribute.” (Tin House‘s 2013 VIDA count? 59 female writers and 43 male writers.)

New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul also sought more female writers – and found an abundance of talent. She told NPR, “It is not hard work at all. There are so many good books out there by women, and there are so many incredibly good book critics out there who are women. So I actually have to say that I didn’t find it to be an incredible strain.” In 2012, 45 percent of their book reviewers were female, jumping to 49 percent the following year.

New Republic‘s founder and editor Chris Hughes said in a statement that he promised to correct the gender byline imbalance: “Our print contributor breakdown looks more like what you would expect from 1964 than 2014, and it must change. We will hold ourselves to a much higher standard in 2014.”

Still, other publications choose to ignore the problem. In response to the VIDA count, Peter Stothard, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, said, “The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,” and “while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.”

But as more editors — whether male or female — invite additional female voices to the cultural conversation, the printed page will only get livelier as it gets more diverse. Said former Granta editor John Freeman to Flavorwire, “I don’t force myself to think of Louise Erdrich, or Karen Russell. In fact, it is hard for me not to; to me, they are simply the best out there.”

Follow Grace Bello on Twitter at @grace_land.

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