A new tally by VIDA shows how few female writers appear in magazines.

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Feb. 2 2011 4:02 PM

Women at Work

A new tally shows how few female writers appear in magazines.

Why is the gender distribution in magazines so uneven? Click image to expand.
Why is the gender distribution in magazines so uneven?

Women may be shattering glass ceilings, but not in the literary world. So a new report from the women's literary organization VIDA suggests. VIDA has just posted a breakdown by gender of contributors to magazines—mainstream ones such as the Atlantic, * the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the New Republic, and smaller literary journals such as the Paris Review, Tin House, and Poetry—over the course of 2010. They also counted how many women and men's books were reviewed in each. But the real novelty is the inclusion of smaller journals, allowing for side-by-side comparison with the bigger magazines.

Even if you might have expected the gender ratios to be skewed, the results are a little surprising. After all, writing isn't a field historically dominated by men, like theoretical physics; women in the United States have long had pens in hand—remember Nathaniel Hawthorne's "damned mob of scribbling women"?—and one might reasonably have assumed that since feminism's second wave, matters had roughly evened out, at least in smaller literary journals. According to VIDA's findings, they haven't quite, even if the ratios at literary journals are notably less lopsided than those at more politics and current events-oriented magazines. Interestingly, the New York Times Book Review, which ignited the poorly named "Franzenfreude" debate last fall, turns out to have the most equitable male-to-female byline ratio—about 1.5 to 1—as well as one of the least lopsided ratios of books reviewed, about 1.9 to 1. Close behind it are Granta and the Paris Review and Poetry, which hover at nearly two men to every woman. The New York Review of Books possessed the most skewed ratio, having published 462 pieces by men to 79 by women, or about 5.9 to 1. The New Yorker and the Atlantic and Harper's all had ratios ranging from 2.6 to 3.6 to 1. VIDA didn't subject Slateto its bean-counting, but last fall, SlateBooks Editor Ann Hulbert did an in-house analysis. During that time, Slate had published reviews of nine novels by women and 25 by men—for a ratio of about 2.8 to 1. * In total, it reviewed 76 books by men and 38 by women, for a ratio of 2 to 1.  (The ratio evens out when you add Double Xreviews to the mix.) The good news was that the book review bylines by gender were more even.

Tellingly, the ratio of men's to women's books being reviewed is often, if not always, wider than the ratio of male to female bylines. The New Republicreviewed 55 books by men and only nine by women. The New Yorker reviewed 33 books by men and nine by women. The New York Review of Books reviewed 306 books by men and 59 by women—a slightly better ratio than its overall bylines but hardly even. In its section of old or "lost" books, Tin House published 18 essays about books by men and four about books by women. In all the categories VIDA studied, I found only two cases of women outnumbering men: In its "capsule" review section, the Atlantic reviewed more books by women than men, and Poetry reviewed 11 books by women and nine by men. (Suddenly, being a poet seems a better career move than it used to.) One wonders whether this is because the capsule reviews are mostly of novels—a task VIDA might usefully take on is a breakdown, by gender, of the genres reviewed and represented.

So the numbers look unequal—at least to a writer with two X chromosomes. But what explains them? 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.) Critics of studies like VIDA's often dismiss them as a bid for special pleading, arguing that bean-counting is just a way of evading uncomfortable questions about whether men are better (and more prolific) writers and thinkers than women are. The real evasion is the pretense that decisions about who and what get published are the result of merit alone.

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. (Of course, writers like Samantha Power and Elisabeth Rubin are successful examples of women who do.) 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. (Sometimes I think it's no accident that some of the most influential female writers have refused to foreground the fact that they were women: Take Elizabeth Bishop, who wouldn't allow her work in an anthology of women writers, or Susan Sontag, who, as Sigrid Nunez recounts in her forthcoming memoir Sempre Susan, refused to wear make-up or carry a purse.)

The world of novels, we often hear, is a feminine one—book buyers are predominantly women; novels and memoirs by women and about women's lives often do extremely well commercially. (Think of Eat, Pray, Love and The Lovely Bones.) So you might shrug and say—what's the problem? But VIDA's study raises questions about how seriously women writers are taken and how viable it is for them to make a living at writing. As we all know, small rewards and affirmations have a concrete but unquantifiable effect on one's writing life. So does silence.

Corrections, Feb. 3, 2011: The article originally made reference to the Atlantic Monthly, although that magazine changed its name to the Atlantic. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also originally stated that Slate reviewed more books by men than by women at a ratio of 3.8 to 1. In fact, the ratio was 2.8 to 1 among works of fiction Slate reviewed. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.