Magazine editors on the dearth of female bylines

After several journalists counted female bylines in American magazines and found the numbers depressingly unequal, Elissa Strauss asked the magazines to explain.

An earlier story by VIDA found that The New Yorker had 27% female bylines, The New Republic 16%, The New York Review of Books 15%, Harper’s Magazine 21% and The Atlantic 26%. With the exception of The Atlantic, all the magazines responded to Strauss’s request for an explanation (although not all of them actually answered her question.) Strauss reprinted their responses in full.

Strauss notes that “I know these publications that I singled out for quotes are hardly the only publications at which women are poorly represented. I chose them not because they are the worst in terms of byline equity, but rather because they are places that I hold in highest esteem. As I said before, these magazines are the sources of some of the sharpest ideas and most erudite and enlightened thinkers around, which is why I think it matters so such that they have more female bylines on their pages.”

(And it’s not just an American problem: earlier this week a panel hosted by the CBC asked: “Pick up nearly any quality
magazine, read the list of contributors and you will notice a dearth of
women writers. Most of the articles will be written by
men. Even though half the population is female and most major magazines
have a substantial female presence on staff, the lack of bylines is
startling. Why is this the case?”)

Here’s a few excerpts from the responses Strauss received:

“When I became editor of Harper’s Magazine last year, one of the first things I announced to staff was that I’d like to see even more women writers in Harper’s….The dearth of female bylines, however, is an industry-wide issue. There may be some sort of a historical hangover from past years that has resulted in us getting fewer pitches from female writers, but I would like to change that equation.” — Ellen Rosenbush, editor, Harper’s Magazine.

“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.” — David Remnick, editor, New Yorker.

The most candid response came from Jonathan Chait, senior editor, The New Republic (although he notes that despite his title he’s a writer, not a manager).

“Most men in our business want to stay away from this question, because to jump into this debate without endorsing the most pat feminist answer is to volunteer yourself as the defendant in a sexism trial. And so the conversation takes on an echo chamber quality of women agreeing that the issue is sexist editors.”

Chait adds:

“At TNR we do well finding female journalists who excel at writing news stories, foreign dispatches, profiles, and other reporting-driven pieces. We have a harder time finding women who feel comfortable with opinion-driven journalism. And since opinion journalism is the magazine’s primary genre — it was defined in 1914 as a ‘journal of opinion’ — this is a severe handicap in terms of attaining gender parity.”