Magazine Byline Breakdown Shows The Ratio Favors Men

Jessica Wakeman | February 4, 2011 - 4:20 pm

Men outnumbered women two-to-one in the nation’s news, culture and literary magazines in 2010 — and in some cases the discrepancy was much, much worse. VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, counted all the bylines in mags like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and The New Republic and lit journals like Paris Review, Tin House, Granta, and Poetry for analysis. Literary journals Paris Review, Granta and Poetry were the most egalitarian, with a still-not-great two men’s bylines for every byline by a woman. The worst offender? The New York Review of Books, abysmally, published six bylines by men for every one byline by a woman. Pfffffffft.You can read the study’s statistics — including the number of books written by men versus women that have been reviewed — on VIDA’s web site. And maybe to a lot of people, they just look like a bunch of numbers that don’t mean anything. But I think the fact that not a single publication has the ratio 1:1 speaks volumes.

To be fair, statistics on women’s bylines are somewhat incomplete, as Meghan O’Rourke notes on Slate:

“Perhaps, some say, women send fewer pitch letters to editors than men (a conjecture offered a few years back when there was a similar furor about the maleness of newspaper Op-Ed pages); or, perhaps, the gatekeepers at publishing houses buy more books by men than women. Perhaps, but I doubt this is all that’s going on. As I’ve written before, we know that bias works unconsciously on women and men. (To take but one example: Studies have shown that men tend to cite male peers more often than female peers.) … If it’s hard to pinpoint what factors contribute to the inequity in magazines, pointed questions about “why” and “how” are still worth asking. It may be that more men than women write what editors consider ‘important’ books—in part (and this is speculation) because more men than women write about international affairs and politics. … If that’s the case—and I’d like to see the numbers—the salient question is why. Another salient question is whether what editors consider ‘important’ is itself affected by gender.”

On one level, there simply are no barriers stopping women and men from pitching articles, poems or short stories to magazines. But the barriers — perhaps I should use the word “discouragement” — creep up over a lifetime. Say it starts in college, when her male professor takes a male classmate under his wing because the old man sees in the younger man a version of himself. The young female journalist is OK, she manages. She graduates and goes on to get a job. But, say, who is asked to cover the local fashion show downtown while her male colleague is asked to cover the planning and zoning meeting? Though no offense make be meant, and in fact the editor might be well-intentioned in assuming the young women would love to cover a fashion show, you can easily see how it sets a precedent. As her career progresses, maybe she notices how there’s an unspoken belief at the magazines she tries to pitch that women writers are best suited for the annual “womens’ issue”— the one time of year the magazine publishes articles on the wage gap and abortion rights and which female politicians are most powerful. She learns over time that this is her best opportunity to get bylines — that for some reason she is not getting to write stories about war, or racial politics, or food. Then she marries and has kids and finds out all of a sudden that the only stories she can get assigned are ones about epidurals and potty-training and biodegradable nappies.

That’s just an imaginary tale I’ve concocted in my head right now. But this story is a composite of stories culled from real life stories of women I know, including myself. No one was told “no, you can’t do this.” No one was outright denied anything. Yet these women were all discouraged from doing one thing and encouraged to do another. It’s a less obvious form of sexism in action — the 21st century version, you might say — but it’s not less pernicious.

And why should you care? You might not care at all. (I can imagine the reader comments now!) But as Meghan O’Rourke alludes to with the notion of what editors (and publishers, to be fair) consider to be “important” enough to publish shapes what people think and what cultural conversations occur. What women have to say should matter and diversity of points of view when it comes to gender should be essential to the media. (And race … and class … although those conversations are whole other cans of worms.) When Jezebel made a stink about the lack of women on-air at “The Daily Show,” it was because they were saying womens’ points of view matter. When the author Jodi Picoult made a stink about the lack of womens’ books reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, it was because she was saying womens’ points of view matter.

As a writer, this is personal for me. I don’t expect that everyone will care as passionately as I do. But if you do care, maybe the next time you pick up a magazine and see the bylines of 13 men and two women, you’ll write an letter to the editor.