The Byline Gender Gap

Last year, Ruth Davis Konigsberg, an editor at Glamour, started 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,

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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