Want more women writers in magazines? Get more female editors.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 11 2011 11:59 AM

The Lack of Female Bylines in Magazines Is Old News

If you really want more women writers, get more women editors.

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Editors matter. A cursory look at some of the publications that fared the worst in VIDA's count finds that they have particularly lopsided mastheads: At the Atlantic, where just 26 percent of 2010 articles were by women, of the top seven editors, only the managing editor is a woman. (Women are often managing editors, a position with lots of work and not much power.) Of the 12 editors listed at the top of the New Republic's masthead, only two are women (one of these women is the executive editor, the other is a senior editor). * The list of 41 contributing editors, who are basically those writers who belong to the magazine's inner circle, includes only four women, only one of whom is under 60. I wouldn't look for a dynamic approach to the byline problem from mastheads like these.

In a response to the VIDA count published this week, New Republic editor Ruth Franklin counted the books published in the fall of 2010 at 13 important publishing houses, and found that the proportion of books by women ranged from 45 percent at the high end to 10 percent at the low end. While she didn't consider the gender of these publishers' top editors, I couldn't help but notice that the house that published the highest proportion of women—Riverhead, at 45 percent—has a female editorial director. * The two worst houses, Verso (11 percent) and Dalkey Archive Press (10 percent), are male bastions.

Regardless of gender, what's key is for an editor to go beyond the ritual deploring and to make publishing women a priority. Ann Friedman, who used to be the managing editor of Alternet, has written shrewdly about her successful efforts to publish women there. Alternet has a policy that at least two out of the five daily pieces featured on the home page had to be by women. As she wrote in her piece " The Byline Gender Gap" in 2006, "Things will never change, unless magazines make a specific commitment to raising the number of women who appear in their pages." Friedman explained that she set aside time to seek out pieces and blogs by women, kept a physical (not mental) list of possibles, reached out to women one by one and offered actual assignments—vague invitations to submit something sometime wouldn't cut it. Without such conscious efforts, she argued, the daily press of business means you just go back to the same old reliables and the same old perspectives. She suggested that editors who say they'd like to have more women writers but just can't find them commit to spending 20 minutes a week looking for them. Twenty minutes a week. If a problem so widespread can be dented with such a small investment of time, the psychological resistance to change must be deep indeed.

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A case in point: Just last week, at a fundraising party for a newish, ultra-cool, leftish intellectual magazine, one of the editors explained to me that it wasn't the fault of the founding editors, all men, that they had so few women contributors. Their wives and girlfriends were too busy getting tenure, he said, to write for them.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2011: Due to an editing error, this article originally said Riverhead was helmed by a woman. Its publisher is a man. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Feb. 16, 2011: This article did not originally specify that the New Republic editors referenced are those listed at the top of the magazine's masthead. In addition, it speculated that the executive editor's role at the magazine might be similar to that of a managing editor. It is not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

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