Women in Publishing

This is an article I published at Limited News. I wanted to republish it here in full as I think it is vital to the ongoing conversation around gender equity in our industry.

“To the person that said the ‘gender bias’ wasn’t an accident, unless you have sat in editorial meetings and heard as much then you have no real proof of that. That’s a tiny sample and could very plausibly be a coincidence.”

This comment is from a Facebook thread posing the question, “Is our publication guilty of gender bias?” Background: editor of The Lifted Brow, Samuel Cooney, had responded to criticism that the publication showed gender bias by counting up the numbers of published men and women for the last five issues, and posing the question to The Lifted Brow readership via its FB page… are we biased?

Watching comments start to appear, I waited a little while to weigh in. After a dozen or so, I decided to add my perspective. I wrote:

I think it is great you are asking the question, and while I agree that these stats are better than most publications, it’s still not an ideal picture. The fact is that there isn’t one example where you have published MORE women than men. It’s not an accident that the stats fall this way, even if it isn’t a deliberate choice on the editorial team’s behalf. 

I think one of the most powerful things any publication can do is be explicit in welcoming pitches by women, and seeking out contributions from women. I read a great case study where a magazine had actively tried to do this. I’ll go search it out for you.

Props for making the discussion public, and for taking the time to consider what is happening here.

Interested in the developing conversation, I checked back every so often on the responses. Most seemed to be of the opinion that merit was all that mattered, with a few smatterings of agreement that the statistics probably showed some bias, though nowhere near as much as other publications. Then came the response about the numbers being a coincidence and my lack of proof for “gender bias” (quotation marks used by the commenter). I responded again.

I’m not inferring there is something nefarious going on, I’m saying the statistics speak for themselves. If it was down to coincidence/chance the statistics don’t add up. 100% of the sample of issues given have a majority of male writers. Therefore there is gender bias. There are lots of reasons for why this could be the case. I’m not imagining an editorial meeting where the team sat down and decided to exclude women. If you take a look at any of the links myself and others have provided you will see that this is something reflected throughout almost all other publications, too. This further adds evidence that this is not a coincidence.

This example is typical of the conversations which frequently occur when gender bias in publishing is raised. Anyone who dares to assert that the bias is there, it’s real and it matters is immediately met with howls of indignation. It’s not real (it is). Even if it was, it doesn’t matter (it does). Even if it is, women are at fault due to their own lack of motivation or their failure to lean in (they’re not). VIDA, an organisation for women in literature, has compiled statistics on the male/female ratios of some of the most high profile magazines in America over the last three years. These show, unequivocally, there is a huge disparity in the number of women published, and the number of women’s work covered/reviewed in these publications. The bias also exists in literature awards, where even when a woman does win, the media’s angle on the story is still about a man.

And that’s where the conversation ends. Those people who recognise that the bias is real are so busy fighting the fight of whether it exists that we don’t ever get the space to deal with the next, and most important question: it is real, so what do we do about it?

In my day job, I run loads of events featuring writers. Workshops, panels, Q&As, development programs. I aim to have gender equality in every single one. Just last week, when looking for judges for an upcoming prize, I wrote down the first names that came to mind for the judging panel. The list was three men, one woman. Instead of accepting that these people were automatically the best people for the job because I had thought of them first, I looked at the list, saw the inequality, and hit the internet to research. Who else was an expert in this particular field? What women had experience that would be ideal for the panel? I came up with a more balanced list. I weighed the experience of each of the people, and selected two women and two men with complimentary experience and skills. Too many people think that searching out women to publish, or include as experts on panels, is about accepting “lesser” candidates. It’s not. It’s about accepting that even if you don’t know who they are, there are women in every field doing exceptional work, and it’s up to you to find and include them. This is a responsibility we all need to take on.

Believe it or not, there are publications which already lead the way in publishing equal numbers of men and women. One such magazine, Voiceworks, publishes slightly more women than men in almost every edition (full disclosure: I work for Express Media, the organisation which publishes this magazine). It is rare to find this kind of split. So why does it happen in Voiceworks? Tellingly, gender isn’t even a factor in the equation. All submissions are read blind; no information relating to name, age or gender is attached. Is it a coincidence that this leads to more women being published? Hell no. Subconscious bias has been proven in clinical studies. Whether we know it or not, society has conditioned us to be positively biased towards men, and negatively biased towards women, when we compare them side by side and consider experience, professionalism and ability to perform. As VIDA co-director Erica Belieu succinctly sums it up in The Guardian, “We live in a world where gender bias is embedded in practically every aspect of our lives – why would the literary world be different than the larger world in terms of the way women are viewed and valued? It’s not. No surprise there.”

If you don’t believe in counting up the numbers and selecting pieces because of the writer’s gender, then what’s your suggestion? If you don’t believe that affirmative publishing action is the way to open up space for women to publish, what is? Until you can offer me some answer, some solution, some action that you want to take, don’t rest at telling me what isn’t the answer. Think harder. Find your own solutions. I’ll support those too if they lead to greater participation by women in publishing.

For those who think the answer is simply for women to lean in, I think Becky Tuch said it best in her piece for The Review Review (which deserves to be read in its entirety):

While women should and must continue to submit their work, fighting doubly and triply hard to share their stories with the world, we need to keep in mind that the inequality in submitting and publishing cannot be explained only by women’s bad thinking habits. Telling us to “Toughen up!” or “Get out there and submit more!” is wonderful and encouraging advice. But we must not lose sight of the larger forces – economic, social, commercial – which act against women who wish to be artists.

VIDA co-director Erica Belieu told The Guardian VIDA aims to ask the questions, “Why are women generally more willing to read across gender? How do we teach our sons to be readers across gender? If women don’t submit as frequently to magazines and contests, why is this? What can we do to help editors develop more women writers for their publications? What can we do to help them to understand why it’s important to do so?” By examining these, perhaps we can start to find solutions. Some individuals and publications certainly have. Two women from the organisation Women in Letters and Literature Arts mentor other female poets, and guest edited an edition of Connotation Press featuring these women. Editor of The Lifted Brow, Samuel Cooney, took action by starting a discussion with the community of his publication. Clem Bastow wrote a piece for Daily Life shining light on the inequity in gender in opinion pieces in our major newspapers. Other publications came out and voluntarily released their own VIDA count statistics for comparison.

Every editor should read this truly remarkable piece from author Annie Finch which outlines, in painstaking detail, what they should be doing to increase the number of women published on their pages. It is a blueprint for how to address these problems, leaving no excuses for editors who shrug their shoulders and claim there is nothing they can do.

There have been some excellent local initiatives to promote women’s writing in Australia over the last few years. From the recently awarded Stella Prize to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, people have banded together to highlight how fantastic the writing by women is in this country. Is it a coincidence that the number of women in this year’s Miles Franklin has risen from zero in both 2009 and 2011 to eight (out of ten) in only two years? I don’t think so. I think it is because we’ve shone the spotlight on this issue. We’ve talked about the lack of equality. We’ve debated the issue. We’ve tried to address it. You might not believe a women’s literature prize is the way to do that, and that’s fine. You might think that selecting what you read on the basis of gender is a waste of time, and that’s fine too. But don’t just give up. Don’t say nothing can be done. Keep talking about it. Keep looking for solutions that will see an equal number of women and men getting opportunities to publish and having attention paid to their work.

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