The XX Factor

Male-Dominated Magazines Are a Product of Sexism, Loyalty, and Neglect

Getting women in here is “not hard work at all.”

Photo by Aigars Reinholds/Shutterstock

On Monday, VIDA released its annual count of male and female bylines in major literary magazines and found that while some magazines have made huge strides toward gender equality over the past year (the Paris Review overcame a dismal 2012 to publish more women than men in 2013), others have stagnated under the weight of all those male bylines (the New York Review of Books is holding steady at 80 percent male). Now, it’s time for the editors of those magazines to either gloat or sulk over their relative performance. Let’s start with Pamela Paul, who took over as editor of the New York Times Book Review last spring and brought the publication’s male dominance down to just 55 percent. How does she do it?

“It is not hard work at all. That’s the big secret: It’s not hard!” Paul told NPR on Wednesday morning. “There are so many good books out there by women, and there are so many incredibly good book critics out there who are women. So I actually have to say that I didn’t find it to be an incredible strain.” Tin House editor Rob Spillman—who published more women than men in 2013—told Flavorwire that it seems to him that male-dominated publications appear to be trying not to publish women. “A little bit over or under balance, I can see, but 75%? 80%?” he said. “That’s willful neglect at best. Just plain sexism at worst. That is basically saying, ‘We don’t give a crap.’ ”

So how is that some editors find the project of gender equity effortless while others struggle to improve? After VIDA announced the New Republic’s pathetic numbers this year, owner, publisher, and editor Chris Hughes pledged to do better. “Our print contributor breakdown looks more like what you would expect from 1964 than 2014, and it must change,” he said in a statement. “We will hold ourselves to a much higher standard in 2014.” That’s a great message, but it’s not clear how Hughes plans to carry it out. “We have aspired to reach parity in the breakdown of women and men on staff, where we have made significant strides and nearly 50% of our full-time employees are women,” he said. “Unfortunately that progress wasn’t reflected in our bylines.”

Maybe that’s because, of the top 22 editors listed on the masthead—the people responsible for guiding the direction of the magazine and assigning writers to stories—only five are women. Making room for high-ranking editors who are equipped to alleviate a publication’s gender problem means making cuts elsewhere. And publishing more women requires magazines to turn away trusted (male) contributors, colleagues, and friends. The fact is that more women in the magazine means fewer men in the magazine, and that seems to be a tough thing for the men who run these magazines to accept and execute.

That may constitute “plain sexism,” as Tin House’s Spillman argues. But it won’t be resolved by these editors holding themselves “to a higher standard” without making staffing changes. One takeaway from editors who performed both well and poorly in the VIDA count is that good intentions aren’t as effective as concerted strategies. “In the past we had relied on ‘we’re all feminists, so the numbers will work out,’ ” Tin House’s Spillman said. “But the numbers were slightly skewed in favor of men.” So the magazine instituted “systemic changes—soliciting more women, re-affirming our desire to see work by women, assigning more interviews and reviews of female writers, and generally paying attention throughout our organization.” And the 2013 numbers produced by the New York Times Book Review and the Paris Review suggest that a good round of public shaming can work wonders, too. Hughes said that TNR looks forward to being “publicly accountable in progress toward our goal.” VIDA, at least, will hold him to that.