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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:

I read your piece, I read the piece in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke, who writes for us and was an editor here — and you are right. It’s certainly been a concern for a long time among the editors here, but we’ve got to do better — it’s as simple and as stark as that.

Ellen Rosenbush, Editor, Harper’s Magazine:

Harper’s Magazine has always published great women writers — from Edith Wharton to Jane Smiley to Joyce Carol Oates, Sallie Tisdale, Susan Faludi, Lynn Freed, Rivka Galchen — and I plan to solicit more pitches from women writers. When I became editor of Harper’s Magazine last year, one of the first things I announced to staff was that I’d like to see even more women writers in Harper’s. In the April issue, we’ll have pieces by Alice Munro and Lore Segal.

The dearth of female bylines, however, is an industry-wide issue. There may be some sort of a historical hangover from past years that has resulted in us getting fewer pitches from female writers, but I would like to change that equation. I have made it a point to have at least one woman writer in every issue, and now, with the addition of Zadie Smith as our New Books columnist, I will be able to get more and more female bylines.

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

Thank you for your email regarding contributors to the New York Review. I should mention recent reviews and articles by some of our women contributors, including — in the opening weeks of the current year — pieces of literary and film criticism, political analysis, economic commentary, classical scholarship, and foreign reportage. Among such articles since our Holiday Issue, we have had Mary Beard on Stacy Shiff’s biography of Cleopatra; Margo Picken on the regime of Hun Sen in Cambodia; Arlene Croce on Diaghilev; Diane Johnson on T.C. Boyle; Elizabeth Drew on Obama; Sue Halpern on Oliver Sacks; Helen Vendler on Kay Ryan; Sarah Boxer on Hedda Sterne; Joyce Carol Oates on the film The Fighter; and Amy Knight on Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov’s book about the Russian security services. A number of our women contributors also write frequently on the New York Review blog, including Ingrid Rowland (on Cranach and the Alexandria Library), Alma Guillermoprieto, Amy Knight, and most recently, in her extensive coverage of the Egyptian uprising, Yasmine El Rashidi.

We hope for more pieces from these contributors and the other women writers we admire and have published, among them Janet Malcolm, Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Cathleen Schine, Anita Desai and Maya Jasanoff, to mention only a few.

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.

In reply, I can only hope readers will appreciate the quality of the work by women we publish. I’ve heard from women subscribers who say they are particularly grateful for our contributions by women. We certainly hope to publish more.

Jonathan Chait, Senior Editor, The New Republic:

I was asked to contribute my thoughts about the gender disparity at the New Republic. I should say at the outset that, despite my misleading title, I’m not an editor, I’m a writer. I don’t hire, fore, commission or edit pieces. I can’t speak officially for the magazine.

Of course, this raises the question about why I’m jumping into this issue at all. Most men in our business want to stay away from this question, because to jump into this debate without endorsing the most pat feminist answer is to volunteer yourself as the defendant in a sexism trial. And so the conversation takes on an echo chamber quality of women agreeing that the issue is sexist editors.

I’m volunteering myself for what I’m sure will be a great deal of abuse because I care about this issue and I’ve followed it for a long time. Your audience probably will not agree with a lot of what I write here, but I think they deserve the compliment of serious engagement.

The New Republic practices what I’d describe as a mild form of affirmative action. I’ve seen conversations where editors notice that the contributor lineup to an issue is too male, and see if they can remedy it. Our Reporter-Researcher internship program, which is the main pipeline for developing staff members – I came through it – has essentially a formal floor of at least one female in every class. An all-female Reporter-Researcher class is acceptable (we had one recently) but an all-male class is not.

TNR appears to me to be a place where women can thrive. I’ve made a lot of female friends in my 15 years here, some of them very close friends. Now, I know enough about gender dynamics to understand that even a close friend might not let on if she detected a sexist atmosphere. I won’t flatter myself to claim insight into the internal perspective of women in my office. But the external evidence that I see is that women can experience a great deal of career success here. When I was an intern, I was mentored by a female staff writer, and hired by a female editor. We have, and have had as long as I’ve been here, brilliant female staffers, editors and outside writers.

All that said, it remains a majority male magazine. I’m sure the maleness, to some degree, has a self-perpetuating quality — women are more reluctant to apply to a heavily male staff, so the staff remains heavily male. But I believe the bigger factor by far is that opinion journalism disproportionately attracts men.

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.

At TNR we do well finding female journalists who excel at writing news stories, foreign dispatches, profiles, and other reporting-driven pieces. We have a harder time finding women who feel comfortable with opinion-driven journalism. And since opinion journalism is the magazine’s primary genre — it was defined in 1914 as a “journal of opinion” — this is a severe handicap in terms of attaining gender parity.

A further handicap is this: TNR represents the top of the opinion writing totem pole, but not the top of the feature writing totem pole. When we develop writers or editors who excel at features or other news-driven pieces, they eventually get hired away for a lot more money at magazines like the New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine. Our writers who focus on argument-driven pieces don’t. The former group contains a mix of men and women, while the latter group is almost exclusively male.

I’m sure this will strike many of your readers as a self-serving explanation, even though, as I noted, I have no managerial responsibility. But any problem has to addressed by defining it correctly. Our editors and staff should be aware of the importance of gender diversity — I believe they are — but there is only so much that can be accomplished through editorial willpower.

I want to be clear that I am not defining this as a non-problem. It is a problem. I have a young daughter who, through my admittedly biased eyes, has displayed a curious, morally passionate, and deeply analytical mind at a precocious age. I want her to grow up a fearlessly opinionated woman. I would be very happy if she decides to enter opinion journalism. And I fear that somewhere along the way she will receive signals that hold her back. That is the primary thing that I think needs to change.


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