The Gender Issue

In early January, Ann Hayes wrote a letter to the editor of The New Yorker, returning her latest issue of the magazine because she didn’t like the gender imbalance between its pages. She asked them to extend her subscription by one month or replace the issue with one that had a more “equitable ratio of male to female voices.”

Women are not actually a minority group, nor is there a shortage, in the world, of female writers.  The publishing industry is replete with female editors, and it would be too obvious for me to point out to you that the New Yorker masthead has a fair number of female editors in its ranks.  And so we are baffled, outraged, saddened, and a bit depressed that, though some would claim our country’s sexism problem ended in the late 60’s, the most prominent and respected literary magazine in the country can’t find space in its pages for women’s voices in the year 2011. 

I love the New Yorker and Ann Hayes letter made me want to investigate the issues that litter the floors in my house. Most of my friends—and a few people who would rather eat sharp nails than admit they know me—would say I tend to jabber on about gender–a lot. It creeps into just about anything I write. I’ve also stood on the feminist soap box at more than one party, drunkenly waving a glass of wine around while waxing on the topic of women’s rights.

So, you would think I had picked up on the lack of women authors in my favorite magazine, but I had not. I tend to skim the table of contents to see if any of my favorite writers are there and if not, the issue joins one of my “to read” piles around the house. And just for the record, my favorites in the magazine are: Elizabeth Kolbert, Peter Hessler, Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande—so take that nail-eaters, I do too like men writers.

I quickly got absorbed in an article I hadn’t yet read when I sat down to count the number of women in an issue and forgot about my original task. I actually forgot about it until this Tuesday, when VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published their 2010 count. They tallied the number of articles published by men vs. women, the number of male vs. female book reviewers, and the number of men vs. women who had their book reviewed in a number of prestigious magazines and newspapers during 2010.

Some of the data I’m not sure how to interpret. It’s not totally clear what the “over all” section means compared to “cover to cover.” And as some of the comments point out, without knowing the female to male ratio of submissions and article pitches, it’s hard to judge whether an editor has a bias. 

The numbers that floored me though are the slides that show how many male authors were reviewed compared to female. The Times Literary Supplement reviewed only 330 women authors compared to 1036 men. I could understand a little bit of a difference, but three times as much is a shocker.

The New York Times Book Review’s numbers were not as overwhelming. They looked at 283 books authored by women compared to 524 by men, but then they have 295 female book reviewers who compete with their 438 male colleagues. The 341 women at The Times have to out-review 900 men.

I’m a little stunned right now, but will soon step back up on the soap box. (Maybe without the wine this time since I have research to back me up.) However, I don’t need an elevated platform to join Ms. Hayes and head VIDA’s call to action: “We know women write. We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.”

That is a question to which a lot of women and men want to know the answer.


  • Laurie Ryan says:

    Wow. That’s kind of eye opening. Thanks for pulling the info together, Asa.

  • tanya.debuff says:

    Huh. Those are interesting and sort of depressing numbers. By the way, got that Jury of Her Peers book, and thanks for the recommendation. I thought it was interesting how some of the earliest female authors, like Anne Bradstreet, were only published with letters from men prefacing it, stating in effect that she was worthy to write, even as a woman. So many letters that it equaled the amount of pages devoted to her actual poetry. Harumph.

    • Asa Maria says:

      At least we’ve come a little bit further than that. Could you imagine having to ask for a letter of recommendation from a male mentor or colleague before we submitted anything?!

  • Traci Hall says:

    Asa, this is so surreal to think that this would even be an issue in modern times! thank you for pointing it out – and I’m a fan, wine glass waving or not :)

  • Ally says:

    No ok. So not ok. I mean if this is economically driven, don’t women spend more money on books than men? Instead of griping, I really should be going to the reviewing sources and letting them know why this is not ok.

    I look forward to more of this soapbox and wine while you’re at it.

    • Asa Maria says:

      I’m sure you’ll see many more wine and soap box moments Ally. I’ve seen numbers that 80% of the books sold each year are sold to women, so it is astonishing that we’re not demanding more from magazines and newspapers in terms of reviews of female authors.

  • Brianna says:

    Interesting. I really had no idea there was such disparity. I’m not surprised and I would never deny that it exists but to see the numbers so plainly is a bit shocking.

  • Virginia says:

    I think it boils down to the same old ‘serious’ content v ‘not-so-serious’ content balderdash which leaves admirable works by many women deemed not worthy of a ‘serious’ review…..never mind looking at the quality of the writing. It amazes me to see the breadth of stories that are called, almost dismissively, ‘women’s fiction.’ What does that even mean? And as soon as a book gets that descriptor, it can’t possibly be worthy of a ‘real’ review, can it? Hmmmmm….

    • Asa Maria says:

      I so agree with you Virginia. I also get very angry when I hear that women only write “genre fiction,” and that’s why they don’t get serious literary reviews. Not only isn’t that true, but why do male genre fiction get reviews and female doesn’t?

      • Virginia says:

        I came across this great quote recently:

        ‘One of my profs said, “Jenny, you write so well. Have you ever thought about writing literature?” I said, “No,” because it was easier than explaining that literary fiction is just another genre, not God’s library.’-Jennifer Crusie

        • Asa Maria says:

          I love reading Jennifer Crusie’s blog about having to defend writing genre fiction. Jennifer Weiner is another person who has really funny things to say on the same topic.

  • Rachel Hartley-Smith says:

    Great stuff. I saw this info published on Vida as well. Did you see the recent front page NY Times story about the lack of women contributing to Wikipedia? I think this is another big deal. Even though we like to shun it as an “scholarly” source, it’s still a source most people go to right away for encyclopedic/general information, and it’s one that’s becoming more and more trustworthy and complex – it’s like it’s morphed into the story of the world. But without women writers (well, 12% of entry authors are women) the presentation of information is skewed or incomplete. The story is all wrong. Sounds familiar, eh?

    A line in the NY Times article reads: “”Jane Margolis,
    co-author of a book on sexism in computer science, ‘Unlocking the Clubhouse,’ argues that Wikipedia is experiencing the same problems of the offline world, where women are less willing to assert their opinions in public.”
    So are we still less willing, less interested, less courageous, less encouraged, less confident, less favored? – There is so much perpetuation towards the unwillingness (or unattractiveness?) to speak. The NY Times also has a cool Op-Ed page with an ongoing debate that addresses all kinds of possibilities – everything from different communication styles to editing wars. I think SO MANY THINGS result in the lesser amount of published women writers today. AND it’s not something that can be solved by saying “Women need to be more zealous” – as I’ve heard a time or two as I’ve been following these crazy debates.
    However . . . I’m still thinkin’ several of us may need to get together and make a pact of some sort to get some shit done . . . :/

    • Asa Maria says:

      Hi Rachel, I heard about the Wikipedia lack of female contributors in a short segment on NPR and I have to admit my first thought was: “well, we’re too busy to keep updating a computer database with the stuff we know.” I like the NY Times article because it shows how not having a gender balance in contributors hurts the content. I assume this is true for having a ethnic imbalance too.

      I don’t think the Gender Issue can be solved by women being more zealous but I think we need good solid numbers for people (men and women) to start seeing the problem and start asking questions.

      Also, I’d join your pact. :-)

  • adrianr says:

    Nuts. Thanks for the data and the post, Asa.

  • Marcus says:

    Fascinating. I like numbers, and it’s interesting to see the correlation between the number of female to male reviewers and how closely it relates to the number of female to male reviewees. And I want to look deeper, too; I wonder how many of the female-authored books were reviewed by men, and vice versa.

    I also wonder if the gender ratio of reviewers at these venues has changed over time, and whether there’s an ongoing upswing, or if there’s been a plateau.

    Will definitely check out the report more fully when I get home…

    • Asa Maria says:

      Marcus, those where things I was curious about to. To me, having more male reviewers than female doesn’t directly translate to reviewing more male authors. I also know from other articles and discussions that female reviewers are just as likely to review more men authors. Although, it does look like the places that have more female reviewers, do review more women authors.

      I wish there was a way to get to the data and the criteria more than just these slides.

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