Whenever I see “best of” lists, award finalists and even table of contents, I can’t help but immediately scan them to see how women fared. Because of this little tic, I find myself regularly complaining to my husband about the lopsided male-to-female ratio in the bylines of the highbrow magazines we receive, which include The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New Republic. He often tells me I am being a bit neurotic, and that women are, overall, pretty well represented.
But after months and months of my informal surveys I was pretty sure I saw a pattern, so I decided to take a look at the numbers. A quick calculation of all non-cultural criticism stories in these three magazines over the past year shows that women trail men when it comes to bylines. The New Republic scored the worst, with only 13% of its stories penned by women. The Atlantic had 22% and The New Yorker (where I didn’t take in account fiction or Talk of the Town, in addition to criticism) had 30% of its stories written by women. (I didn’t take into account cultural criticism because that is an area in which women are generally well represented.) Over the past year, The New Republic had 138 men and 21 women listed on its tables of contents, The Atlantic had 100 men and 29 women, and The New Yorker had 170 men and 73 women.
What’s going on? Do I think that any individual editor or institution is inherently sexist? Not really. They all have dynamite female contributors like The Atlantic ‘s Hanna Rosin (author of the magazine’s widely discussed cover story “The End of Men,” which was turned into a TED speech and will soon appear as book), and Sandra Tsing-Loh; The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and Ariel Levy; and The New Republic’s Judith Shulevitz and Michelle Cottle.
But I don’t think the numbers are a matter of oversight or coincidence. There is something systemic going here. Perhaps stories that women are interested in, and therefore more likely to want to write, are just not considered serious enough for these highbrow pages? Or perhaps women are still too timid to pursue the big scoops or make the bold claims necessary to land an assignment from the editors? I’d be curious to see how these editors would explain these numbers. Are they receiving fewer pitches from women? Or do they, consciously or unconsciously, reject more pitches that come from women?
And then the bigger question: Why, exactly, is this a problem? As long as these magazines put out serious, hard-hitting journalism that asks big questions and tells important stories, which they do, why should it matter who does the writing? (Even if the “who” is still mostly white men.) Well the same could have been said about the Supreme Court or generations of leading academics, some of history’s most esteemed boy’s clubs. As long as their output was good, why did it matter who was behind it?
As an answer I think we can rely on Sonia Sotomayor’s famous/infamous words about how being a “wise Latina woman” might lead her to different, and sometimes better, judicial conclusions. I can’t help but imagine that there are some wise, female journalists whose life experience might lead them to different, and sometimes better, reporting. But when only about 20% of work published in some of our most serious magazines is by women, such journalists don’t have a fair chance to prove that true.