We spend a lot of time around here discussing the gender gap in traditionally male fields like technology, engineering and surgery. But there are shocking gender gaps at the highest levels of fields we often think of as woman-friendly, including writing. New data on magazines including the Atlantic, Harper’s, and the Nation finds an overwhelming imbalance when it comes to who gets published, and who gets written about. In the literary world, men are still in charge.
In 2010, a relatively young feminist organization called VIDA: Women in Literary Arts got fed up with a perceived gender gap in literary publications. They had heard many people — especially prominent male novelists — dismiss women’s concerns as exaggerated or misguided for years. So they decided to look at the numbers. What they found was a truly startling gender gap.
This year, VIDA did it again. They looked at 14 publications, breaking most down by the gender of authors reviewed in their pages, and the gender of contributors of both features and book reviews. From that data, VIDA made 37 fascinating pie charts, divided into men (red) and women (blue). Only two — two! — of the charts show more blue than red. That means that in all these magazines, by almost every measure, men outnumber women.
Here’s how VIDA described the reaction to their 2010 survey:
The literary community went into hyper drive responding to the information VIDA had gathered: furious debates over The Count took place in comment boxes, both nationally and internationally; women writers are discriminated against and should be righteously indignant; women writers are whiners and should simply write better books; women writers should write about more “important” subjects; women writers’ subjects are just as important as male writers’, dammit!; women writers’ subject matter isn’t inherently different than men’s, it’s just reviewed differently; women writers should submit more work to magazines; male writers should submit less; editors should actively solicit more work from women writers…
Yet despite all the uproar last year, very little changed between this year and next. VIDA says that’s no reason to get discouraged: “We know that significant cultural change takes time,” cofounder Erin Belieu writes. “We also know that this is a conversation that’s not going away; when we talk to other writers, when we talk to our writing students, we know things are in the process of changing for the better, that our literary culture’s consciousness has been raised.”
That’s all true, but it’s going to be an uphill climb. Even editors who are conscious and proactive struggle to correct the imbalance. Writer and editor Ann Friedman, who has written often and awesomely about the disparity, did a byline count for the issues of GOOD magazine that she has worked on as executive editor. “My professional network is mostly women, our editors are mostly women, and it’s always seemed to me like I disproportionately assign to women writers,” she writes. “But I was wrong.” GOOD has published 25 men and 25 women during her tenure, a perfect 50-50 split. “In 2012,” she adds, “it’s still astoundingly easy to conflate mere parity with female domination.”