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Criticism, Digital Media, Fiction, Publishing, Ruminations, The Writer's Life, Writings

Final Results of My Survey in Response to the VIDA Count

This was a bit more work than I bargained for, but once one is committed to a task, it’s hard to quit. And I think the results of my unscientific survey add something to the discussion about gender in writing and publishing, as started by VIDA.

I analyzed the staffs at the nearly 300 literary journals listed in my submission database. Approximately 25 were no longer in publication. About another 25 did not list their editorial staffs. Some listed full editorial staffs, including assistants and readers. Others listed only the top editors. Still, I believe this gives a fair snapshot of the state of gender representation on lit journal editorial staffs.

Now let’s look at only those journals I consider “top tier.” I have narrowed the field to 50 well-known, established journals. The numbers shift towards men on senior staffs of independent publications, and towards women on non-senior university publications.

Here are some observations, based on the above findings:

  • There are substantially more women than men on lit journal editorial staffs.
  • The percentage of men and women in senior positions is roughly equal, but on more established, prestigious journals, men hold more control, especially on independent, often paid staffs.
  • Women outnumber men more than 3 to 1 in positions that are typically unpaid and temporary.

But what does it mean? Here are some conclusions I have drawn from both my and VIDA’s studies:

  • Overall, women are well represented in the literary field.
  • Based on the numbers of the total staffs and lower-ranking staffs, it appears to be easier for a man to move up to a senior position.
  • It appears VIDA’s contention that men dominate decision-making positions on prestigious publications has merit.
  • However, on the issue of percentages of work by men and women that is published, which was what the VIDA study reported, there may be an explanation other than conscious gender bias. On the journals I studied, women make up a 2:1 majority of the lower-ranking staff. Most lit journals use their lower-ranking staff as first readers, the people who assess submissions and make recommendations to senior staff. If this is true, then it’s possible that women-dominated reading staffs recommend works written by men more often than those written by women. Then again, senior staffs, which are roughly equal in gender, may select more male-written stories, despite what is being presented to them for decisions. Would it be a reach to say that both men and women appear to be conditioned by our culture to inherently believe that certain types of writing, and certain subjects are more interesting than others?

What I’m getting at here is the real issue. I doubt that any of the editors and readers out of the 2500 surveyed consciously select work by one gender over another. What they prefer to publish, to a certain extent, is what our culture, formed over thousands of years, tells them, subconsciously, to prefer. VIDA has opened an interesting and important conversation, but the impression one gets by reading their commentary is that men dominate the industry and that they consciously choose to publish men over women. That might have been true fifty years ago, but today, in this industry, it would be difficult to prove.

To imply that the issue is as simple as pure gender bias, or that publishing choices should be some kind of men v. women issue does a disservice to the publishing industry in general. The issue is far more complex and encompasses, I believe, aspects of our culture that are largely outside, not within, the publishing sector.

A little more on this next time.

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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.

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