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The Byline Gender Gap

It's time for progressive editors to stop paying lip service to the idea of gender parity and start making some real changes.
 
 
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Last year, Ruth Davis Konigsberg, an editor at Glamour, started WomenTK.com as a way to keep a tally of women's bylines in national and political "thought-leader" magazines. She recently published her results, and they aren't pretty. "At the New Yorker ," Konigsberg notes, "the ratio was four to one. At Harper's, it was almost seven to one." When you add in the New York Times Magazine , Vanity Fair and the Atlantic Monthly , the magazines published one story by a woman for every three stories written by a man.

"WomenTK" is actually a wildly optimistic name for a site like Konigsberg's. In publishing lingo, "TK" means "to come," which indicates that she expects things to change. It's hard to see how that's going to happen, though, because thus far all the talk about Konigsberg's findings has consisted of journalists rehashing the industry's classic response: a general agreement that the situation is "unfortunate" and that "something should be done." Even female journalists have been reluctant to drop the double speak and propose concrete solutions.

Conventional wisdom among many women journalists (and their male allies) is that change will come when more women rise to positions of editorial power -- which just hasn't happened. Certainly magazines should take steps to elevate competent women not just to the editor-in-chief level, but to all gatekeeper editorial positions. But I don't think the mere presence of female editors can remedy the byline gender gap. Several national and progressive magazines have female editors-in-chief, but you wouldn't know it by looking at each table of contents. There are countless days when all of the progressive news websites feature only one or two stories by women. I know these are places where the editors would agree that the paucity of female bylines is a problem.

As one female editor at a national magazine said to me recently, "We always talk about it. I don't know why we're not able to follow through with it." Clearly, it's not enough to be aware of and concerned about the issue. It's time to hold editors -- yes, even female editors -- accountable for the byline gap. Things will never change unless magazines make a specific commitment to raising the number of women who appear in their pages.

AlterNet has a commitment to placing at least two women's bylines on the front page every day. Because we have a tiny staff, we reprint much of our content from other progressive media. Which means that, in order to publish a sufficient number of women, we are in many ways reliant on other news outlets to do the same. It's disheartening how hard it is to find women's bylines on a daily basis -- even though we're looking all over for them. It's an ongoing struggle.

That's why I've come to believe that a target percentage for women's bylines should be set in the editorial policies of each publication, at least in the short term. I can honestly say that if it were not AlterNet's policy to publish multiple women writers every single day, it would never happen. No matter how committed to gender parity we say we are, the demands of daily news always seem to overshadow the abstract desire to publish more women.

"But," I've heard editors say, "we don't get as many pitches from women. And the ones we do get are often of lower quality than those that come from men. Should we compromise our standards just to meet a quota?"

Seems like a cop-out to me. I've made a point of reaching out to women writers, and can say that a least half of the pitches and submissions I now receive are from women. And they're good quality. If editors know they have to publish a certain number of women, they'll be more likely to reach out to them. And their submissions will follow.

Then there's the matter of getting editors to consider pitches from women. I think many editors are less likely to pay attention to women's submissions, but not because they think women produce inferior work. It’s more due to the fact that they get dozens of pitches a day, and knowing a writer's name often means the difference between reading an email and clicking "delete." So it stands to reason that if the writers an editor already knows (either personally or by reputation) are predominantly male, those are the emails that will get opened and considered. Pieces from women they don't know will languish in an inbox until the submission is stale and no amount of editing can save it.

It's also probably true that women writers are less likely than men to follow up aggressively on pitches, and if they do, they're more likely to be viewed as annoying or nagging rather than confident and persistent.

When it comes time to make story assignments, when are editors (myself included) most likely to think about assigning to a woman? When the subject matter is "hearth and home," of course. Mother Jones crunched the numbers and found that about a third of stories with women’s bylines were articles on gender and family, or were fiction or memoirs. Konigsberg writes on her website,

As a former editor at the New Yorker wrote me in an email, “... I’ve been struck by a pattern, at the Atlantic in particular, where women only seem to write about marriage, motherhood and nannies, obsessively so. If you count the number of women’s bylines there that weren’t about hearth and home, the number would approach zero.”

That’s something I struggle with as an editor, and as a writer whose expertise is in reproductive rights and other feminist issues. Am I fueling this problem by pitching stories about breast cancer and emergency contraception? Would it be better for my career -- and for women writers as a group -- if I chose instead to develop an expertise in economics or foreign policy or law? But then I remember that a number of women writers do have expertise in these areas. Imagine the change that would be possible if editors could get into the habit of considering women journalists for a variety of topics.

Another way to create change is to increase the number of women on each magazine's list of correspondents and contributing writer/editors. This is the stable of elite journalists that editors to go repeatedly to make story assignments. So if women were well-represented in this section of the masthead, the number of female bylines would surely increase. As things stand, at most publications the ratio of male-to-female contributing writers looks even worse than the byline ratio, which is saying something:

The American Prospect: 21:12
The Atlantic: 27:6
Harper's: 30:2 (masthead not online)
In These Times: 6:6
Mother Jones: 10:5
The New Yorker: 44:18
The Nation: 26:4
The New Republic: 12:2
Salon: 14:7
Slate: 20:6
Washington Monthly: 30:5

It's worth noting that many magazines bestow the "contributing writer/editor" title on writers they want to honor, not necessarily those whose stories they publish frequently. Regardless, the numbers are telling. Especially because outlets with women at the helm -- the Nation and Salon, for example -- have ratios that are just as bad or worse than publications with male editors-in-chief.

I certainly don’t think I have all the answers. And I understand that these sorts of changes are easier to make at smaller outlets like AlterNet than at more prestigious national publications. But if women actually are "TK" -- rather than permanently absent from national political magazines -- it's time for editors to step up and make it a written policy to assign a percentage of stories to female writers. Until there's a concrete commitment, nothing's going to change.

Ann Friedman is AlterNet's managing editor and an editor of Feministing.com.

 
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