The grassroots women’s literary group VIDA just released some frightening statistics about gender bias in publishing.
The New York Review of Books has 462 male bylines to 79 female, about a 6-to-1 ratio.
The New Republic has 32 women to 160 men.
The Atlantic published 154 male bylines and 55 female.
The New Yorker reviewed 36 books by men and 9 by women.
Harper’s reviewed more than twice as many books by men as by women.
The New York Times Book Review had 1.5 men to 1 woman (438 compared to 295) and an authors-reviewed ratio of 1.9 to 1 (524 compared to 283).
VIDA’s report has ignited the blogosphere with many commentators wondering, as Patricia Cohen does in the New York Times: Why? “What the numbers don’t explain is whether men write more books (and book proposals) than women or whether they more frequently and aggressively ask magazine editors for assignments.”
But this isn’t an either/ or situation; women face challenges at both ends: publishers and editors are biased to think that men’s stories are the best and most important ones, deserving of publication and reviews; and, women writers, socialized to those same beliefs, agree and don’t try hard or often enough to get published.
This double-challenge doesn’t only affect women writers; it muzzles women’s voices across all media.
For many years, I worked as a talk radio producer, and I had a difficult time getting women to agree to go on air, both as invited guests and as call-ins to the show. At first, I didn’t get it. Talk radio is practically a democracy, anyone can just pick up the phone– so why weren’t women calling?
At the station I worked for, all four of the full time hosts were male. The General Manager, Program Director, and News Director– the top three positions– were also all male. When women hear male voices talking about stories that matter to men, they’re not as likely to call in. So that’s not rocket science.
But here was the deeper mystery to me. Yes, I worked for a male host, but I suggested many of his show topics to him; they were often issues I cared about; I booked most of his guests. I also chose which callers went on the program in what order, and I gave preference to women. Sponsors, themselves, want more women listeners because women are consumers. So why was the show that I produced still so dominated by male voices?
Women are afraid to go on air because they worry that they don’t have the skills to be effective. If one woman did make it on the show, immediately after hearing her, more women would call in. But still, after making a great comment to me when I screened her, she’d often say: “Can you just pass it on? I’m too nervous to go on the show.”
When I invited a woman to come on the show as an expert guest, it was not unusual for her to decline. She’d tell me that she wasn’t really qualified, and then she’d recommend someone ‘better,’ often a male colleague. In the seven years that I worked in talk radio, guess how many men who I called up recommended someone else speak instead of them? Not one. Never happened.
Like a persistent suitor, I refused to take the woman’s first no as an answer, spending a lot of time convincing her to go air. Not only did I repeatedly tell women that their ideas were important, but I coached them on how to deal with the aggressive host who they were afraid to talk to, and I gave them tips on how to respond to other aggressive callers. Talk radio may be democratic in some ways but the verbal sparring can be brutal and you need to know how to play to win. And want to win.
My experience in talk radio showed me that if women had some basic training, at least part of the gender bias in media could be overcome. But it’s not the producer’s job to coach and train women. So I cofounded an organization, the Woodhull Institute, named for Victoria Woodhull who was the first woman to run for president; she also published her own newspaper. Woodhull trains women in professional skills including negotiation, advocacy, and public speaking; Woodhull also trains women in media skills, including the ones Patricia Cohen wondered about in the New York Times, such as how to pitch stories and how to write and submit book proposals.
One training I do at Woodhull is to ask every woman to name three areas where she’s an expert. She can list anything from neurosurgery to breastfeeding to finance; but she has to ‘admit’ publicly, that she knows what she’s talking about. Most women have a hard time with this exercise at first. But after completing the session, they’re much more comfortable owning their expertise.
Another thing I teach Woodhull women is how to link the issues they care about with front page news stories. They need to make their issues sound newsworthy in order to get coverage. It’s a simple skill, but many women don’t have it. When I was a producer and women did call me to pitch, especially progressive women, they often they acted as if I should put them on air because I’m a good person; I should just care about the issue. But, again, male or female, that’s not a producer’s job. Her job is to help to create a timely and entertaining show that will boost ratings and attract sponsors.
You know who is the best of the best at pitching that I ever heard, hands down? The Hoover Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Instead of trying to pull me off into some tangent that had nothing to do with my job, Hoover and Heritage turned it around, making me, the producer, feel as if they were lending a hand: “Did you see the front page article in the New York Times about WMD? We have a Fellow who is extremely qualified to comment on that.” Let’s just say Hoover and Heritage aren’t exactly known for their glut of female Fellows.
Change will continue to be slow for women until they recognize that their stories and their viewpoints are important. All the producers and editors and media magnates in the world can’t help women get their voices out there until they decide to try. And keep trying. Because people will tell them, repeatedly, that they aren’t qualified or have nothing to say or, for whatever reason, don’t deserve to speak.