For the last three years Vida, a non-profit dedicated to women in literature and associated literary arts like poetry, has published a census that tracks the number of women writing for significant literary publications like the Boston Review, Harper’s, and the New Republic, the number of women writing reviews, and the number of women whose work is reviewed by those publications. The purpose of those numbers is simple: to expose how significant the byline gap between male and female reviewers is, and to make clear the differing levels of attention that literary work by men and women receive by the publications where a good review can make a significant difference in an author’s reputation or sales. But the hope is more ambitious: that by forcing editors to see the results of their commissions and subject selections in the aggregate, they’ll change their practices.
But when the third set of results was published yesterday, the news was discouraging. In 2012, the Boston Review, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Times Literary Supplement all published reviews by fewer women than they had in 2009. Of the publications that published more women in 2012 than in 2009, Granta, The New York Review Of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, published fewer women in 2012 than they had in 2011. Gains were followed by reversals, proof that gains were ephemeral rather than systemic, more likely the result of a random fluctuation than a renewed commitment to bring a diversity of ideas in the door by diversifying the authors who would offer them up.
The numbers invite some discouraging potential conclusions. Is listing numbers of women authors published and reviewed—or the number of women writing and directing and producing episodes of television and movies—a pointless enterprise because the people who run literary magazines and studios and television networks are unshameable? “Three years is enough time to create change, even if it’s a little change. I’m tired of conversations. What else is there to say? Editors don’t give enough of a damn to change the status quo,” wrote the fiction writer Roxanne Gay. “There’s nothing to really say at this point. The gender (and racial) inequity exists. It is stark. Counting is useful for reminding us.” When editors like the New Yorker’s David Remnick, who wrote the Forward’s Elissa Strauss “You are right. It’s certainly been a concern for a long time among the editors here, but we’ve got to do better — it’s as simple and as stark as that,” do they not actually mean it? Or do they not know where to look for women to commission? Because if the latter, I’m sure the Collected Wisdom Of The Internet could drum up some suggestions.
My guess would be that the problem is less malign, but more insidious. I’d be willing to bet that every editor of every publication on this list is, in theory at least, committed to the principals of gender equity. But I’d also be comfortable laying money on the idea that they’re equally convinced that their subconscious biases, reliance on familiar authors, and processes to sort submissions and identify new contributors are sound and don’t in any way work to produce byline inequality. They’re probably uncomfortable with the idea of quotas and target numbers, in part because they want to have faith in their own processes. In other words, they can acknowledge a problem without thinking that it’s their problem. And making that connection is what’s important.
I don’t think Vida should stop its count any more than I think Martha Lautzen should stop measuring how many women are making film and television. And I certainly plan to keep writing about those numbers, if only so any time someone is upset about one person or another getting or not getting an opportunity they can say they didn’t know there was a larger context at work here. But for those numbers to break through to the people who have the power to change them, we apparently need something more than those figures. It may not take a Ladies Home Journal-style sit-in, but maybe we could at least start with some specific asks for editors. Do we want parity by a set date? A goal of a certain percentage change per year? I’m open to all suggestions. Because three years of stagnation is a sign that we need different tactics.