The XX Factor

The Encouragement Deficit for Women at Major Magazines

On Feb. 22, Forward writer Elissa Strauss asked a number of editors from thought-leader publications to respond to a report from the organization VIDA about the paucity of female bylines in their pages. (Read Slate ’s take on the VIDA research here and here .)  The New Republic ’s Jonathan Chait told Strauss, “I’ve come across several writers in my career who are good at writing in the argumentative style but lack confidence in their ability. They are all female.” If you can get past Chait’s somewhat patronizing tone, he has a bit of a point about confidence. Which brings me to mine: Women are not well represented in the most respected publications because they lack mentors.

The experience of being an intern at one of these magazines gave me insight into the way men and women are treated differently. While it might not be overt sexism (though there is some of that as well), the problem is more that women face an encouragement deficit. In other industries, it has been proven that women with mentors at work do far better , receiving more promotions and higher pay than those who have no one advocating for them

Perhaps the mostly male editors at these magazines take a rather fatherly approach to mentoring and prefer to find a budding writer to groom who reminds them of their young selves. That’s what I observed at the  Atlantic . There were 12 editorial interns when I was there in 2010, five of whom were men, which from the outside is a great ratio for women. However, at the end of the six month-long internship, three people were offered editorial positions in the company and they were all men.

During the internship, the views and opinions of these same three were encouraged. I’d watch male editors stop by their desks just to talk or tell a joke and their pieces for the Web site were praised and discussed at meetings. Writers by nature are needy people, and the attention that was batted back and forth between men at the office felt like a game we women weren’t invited to. So we worked quietly, cheering ourselves up with baked goods while the others were able to build a professional network. The men became more confident and secure with time, whereas I grew confused and isolated, desperate for somebody to tell me I was doing something right. My female peers felt the same way. Looking back at my lack of self-esteem by the end of the experience, I might not have hired myself either.

The worst part was that I only took the internship to find a mentor. I was old for an intern, already 28 when I started. It was next to impossible. Instead of being given useful advice, I was told to give up when I was struggling to figure out how to pitch ideas.  In an encounter I had before my Atlantic internship, I was told to “stop being such a Pollyanna” once when I expressed the desire to publish something in a magazine the person I was speaking to deemed above my weight class.

It has worked out relatively well for me, but I think about how much better my life would have been for the past decade if I had found someone to mentor me.