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New Yorker, Harper's, NYRB and TNR Editors on the Dearth of Female Bylines

After my post last month about the gender disparity in magazine publishing, which was followed by VIDA’s much more thorough and ultimately conclusive study, I, perhaps naively, expected to see a comment or two from the publications about the roots of this imbalance. Then weeks passed, and, well, basically nothing.

For a while I thought that perhaps it was time to give this up. They had all likely seen the numbers; I didn’t want to come off whiny. But then my curiosity remained, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

I sent out emails to the editors at The New Yorker (27% female bylines overall in 2010 according to the VIDA study), The New Republic (16%), The New York Review of Books (15%), Harper’s Magazine (21%), and The Atlantic (26%), asking them if they would be willing to talk with me about the dearth of female bylines. A few days later I received on-the-records responses from all those publications except for the Atlantic. (Full responses are below.) The overall message from the editors, delivered with varying degrees of passion, was an agreement that things need to change. There was not much in the way of explaining why things are the way they are — with one honest and admirable exception from The New Republic — and no comment on whether they receive and/or reject more pitches from women, nor on whether or not having more female editors might do the trick. Mostly their message was that they could, and should, do better.

As I said in my earlier post, I don’t believe any one editor or institution is sexist, and I was not trying to put them on the defensive. Instead, I believe the disparity is mostly a result of the somewhat invisible web of social and cultural gender constructs that continue to hold women back despite the fact that, generally speaking, the law and most people are on our side — indeed, these are the kind of issues over which we in the feminist blogosphere wage micro-battles daily. I didn’t write the editors seeking an apology or confession. I wrote instead to see how these editors and writers — a group of sharp thinkers and astute cultural critics — would unpack this phenomenon. These are some of the most enlightened, progressive and articulate people around, and I was looking forward to hearing what they had to say on the topic.

After reading their responses and having the opportunity to speak with some of them on the phone, it struck me that the byline gap would not be resolved simply by having more female editors, or seeking out more female writers. It would help, but it isn’t the whole picture.

To begin with, I believe that there just aren’t as many women aching to cover subjects like the economy and politics — and you have to want it bad to get a gig in today’s journalistic climate. I think women still stay away from certain subjects because of the macho, boys club atmosphere that surrounds them; I believe women — present company included — are generally more inclined to write cultural criticism and cover the arts.

A perhaps deeper issue is that we still live in a world where news itself is gendered, where matters like making and raising human beings, gender identity, sexuality, and childhood and adolescence are considered something for the ladies, while subjects like war and politics, which are more likely to be covered by male writers and reporters, hold the monopoly on general interest stories. But I also think both editors and reporters often lack imagination when it comes to the ties between culture and gender and politics and the economy, and that perhaps we would all benefit from a more holistic view of how the world works.

Lastly, I know these publications that I singled out for quotes are hardly the only publications at which women are poorly represented. I chose them not because they are the worst in terms of byline equity, but rather because they are places that I hold in highest esteem. As I said before, these magazines are the sources of some of the sharpest ideas and most erudite and enlightened thinkers around, which is why I think it matters so such that they have more female bylines on their pages:

Here’s what they had to say:

David Remnick, Editor, The New Yorker:

Ellen Rosenbush, Editor, Harper’s Magazine:

Robert Silvers, Editor, The New York Review of Books:

Because I didn’t feel like he exactly answered my question, I wrote again asking him to address to the 15%. This was his response.

Jonathan Chait, Senior Editor, The New Republic:

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