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Criticism, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Gender Balance in the Literary Industry

Recently VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, began to survey the number of women and men published in major literary venues, to determine the state of gender balance in the business. The study is here.

They chose some of the recognized industry leaders, such as The New Yorker, Harpers, New York Review of Books, Granta and the Paris Review for their tally, and looked at percentages of authors published, book reviewers and authors reviewed. The results were not surprising. In all but one case, the number of men in each segment of the industry far surpassed the number of women. The conclusion? Men, as in virtually every other industry, dominate, and women must hurdle a wall of gender bias, consciously or unconsciously constructed, in order to be successful.

Fair enough. I don’t dispute the findings.

But of course such an unscientific study begs further investigation. So I have embarked on my own unscientific study. I have begun to survey the staffs of literary journals. My current database, which I have compiled over the last few years for the purpose of submissions, now contains nearly 300 entries.

For this survey I looked at the number of men and women on staff. I divided the look into senior staff, which includes editors in chief and genre (fiction, poetry, non-fiction … generally any editor with a specific title), and other staff, which covers associate and assistant editors, readers, and persons who appear to contribute in a literary capacity. I did not include production staff (such as graphic artists, proofreaders), or advisory editors (who generally do not contribute to day-to-day decisions about what gets published). I did not count names that could be either male or female. I used published information about editorial staffs from the journals’ web sites or most recent publications. Some journals list more of their staffs than others.

So far I’ve surveyed 40 publications that could be described as “independent.” I have yet to get to the list of university publications. The results:

Senior staff: 52.5% men; 47.5% women

Other staff: 36.4% men; 63.6% women

All staff: 42.0% men; 58.0% women

I won’t draw any conclusions yet, but maybe you can see where this is going. I’ll blog again with some further results.

For the record, I am an editor at the Los Angeles Review. In fact, I am the only male editor on a staff of six. Our publisher is also a woman.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


4 thoughts on “Gender Balance in the Literary Industry

  1. Great Post, Joe! I was wondering that same question as to who the heck was making the decisions. Women dominate the reading market, and seem to be well represented as agents and editors, so the conclusion you allude to might be: “Women prefer to read male authors.” But what do I know?

    I blogged about the same Vida piece in my latest post, and linked to a push back at HTML Giant.



    Posted by notesofasexiststayathomefather | March 2, 2011, 8:21 AM
    • Thanks Caleb,

      You’ve hit on one interpretation of the results. But there’s so many possible explanations for that. Could be women readers prefer male writers. Or is it they’ve been conditioned by a male-dominated culture to prefer male writers? (I’m sure that’s what VIDA would say.) Maybe the junior staff readers recommend women writers, but are overruled by the male senior staff. (VIDA might say that too.)

      And what does VIDA stand for? I think you are correct in that it should be a W not a V. Their site doesn’t define the acronym, so I went to acronymfinder.com. They were no help. The closest listing is “Vancouver Island Dyslexia Association” (which really should be “Vancouver Dyslexia Island Association”).

      Anyway, I think the best (and safest) thing to do is adopt a German accent and call them Vomen In Da Arts.

      I’m still counting…

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2011, 12:13 PM
  2. Funny. Vida means life in Spanish, not that there’s any obvious connection. Yeah, there are many ways to interpret the article, but sometimes I think it goes to far.

    Back 20+ years ago I took a poetry class at the UW, and a fellow student got upset at another student because his poem referred to a train as a “she”. I imagine if the train had been a “he” it would have been deemed sexist, too, because it excluded women.

    Sexism is a serious thing, trivializing it with PC, though, is not how to solve anything…at least in my unsophisticated opinion.

    Posted by notesofasexiststayathomefather | March 2, 2011, 3:59 PM
  3. I guess because VIDA is all caps I thought it was an acronym. Life makes more sense.

    Back to the count…

    Posted by jpon | March 2, 2011, 11:00 PM

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