Most Magazines Have a Huge Gender Gap: Could the Lack Of Women in Science Contribute?


The website/organization VIDA recently released its "2012 Count" of the ratio of men to women published and reviewed in major literary and cultural magazines over the past year. Their tabulation paints a pretty bad picture of the state of certain periodicals, namely, Harper'sThe Paris ReviewThe New RepublicNew York Review Of BooksTimes Literary Supplement, and The Nation. (Harper's comes off especially bad; its male reviewers outnumbered female ones by 9-to-1.)

Magazines that fared better include the Boston Review, the Threepenny Review, and Poetry, as well as Harvard ReviewTin House, and Drunken Boat (the latter three, though uncounted, have instituted in-house review processes to address the issue). The latter are justly praised; as for the former group, poet Amy King concludes:

"I fear the attention we’ve already given them has either motivated their editors to disdain the mirrors we’ve held up to further neglect or encouraged them to actively turn those mirrors into funhouse parodies at costs to women writers as yet untallied." 

While that may be the case, there's a whole host of reasons other than deliberate neglect or malice that could explain these numbers. Before I go on, let me make it perfectly clear that I think that sexism in publishing, as in any other walk of life, continues to exist both latently and out in the open.

It's immoral and insidious and deserves to be called out and eradicated. VIDA's Count is important and valuable and reveals all manner of unflattering, sneaky truths about a part of the press world we generally like to think of as liberal and progressive. I'm not going to engage in what Roxane Gay calls "talk[ing] about all sorts of mathematical reasons why perhaps these numbers aren’t as bad as they seem, as if we can rationalize our way out of bullshit." The numbers are as bad as they seem. And they need to be fixed.

But rather than replying with sarcasm, we'd be better served by asking exactly how this kind of drastic imbalance gets perpetuated, and especially how it could get perpetuated unconsciously. There are lots of hypotheses that you could entertain about this. One is that the VIDA Count actually just reflects another long-standing gender inequity: the underrepresentation of women in heavily quantitative natural and social science disciplines and professions. 

Of the three magazines that the Count looks on favorably — the Threepenny ReviewPoetry, and the Boston Review — the former two are literary magazines in a very strict sense, and the print version of the latter is decidedly more literary than it is political. As for the six publications that the Count excoriates, only one, the Paris Review, can be called a lit mag. The others address a lot of non-literary material: politics, economics, domestic and foreign policy, psychology, biography, history, and occasionally a book on natural science. The other Count-ed magazines break down similarly: only Granta is a true literary periodical, while the London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker publish reviews of books on a range of subjects. 

Why does this matter? Because it's going to be much harder if you publish many reviews of new books in science fields that are still dominated by men. Week by week, month by month, new releases will be authored mainly by men. The big names you'd want to pull in to review those books — on account of audience appeal, but also their academic qualifications — are also, too frequently, mainly men. Sure, magazines shoulder some responsibility here. But in the end, their decisions are only a ripple of the deeper cause at work: the small pool of trade books outside of traditional "literature" (novels, memoirs, poetry, drama, essays) authored by women, and the equally small pool of widely-recognized and qualified potential female reviewers. The first is the fault of publishers; the second is the fault of the academy and the disciplines in question. And the former is probably just an echo of the latter. 

The statistics are oft-recited and depressing: the National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that, in 2010, women earned a majority of Ph.Ds in non-science disciplines, but just 41.9 percent of doctorates in science and engineering. As Sue Rosser writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"In short, in many of the social sciences and the life sciences, women have reached parity in the percentages of degrees received. In other areas, such as the geosciences, mathematics, and physical sciences, their percentages continue to increase but have not approached parity. By contrast, in engineering and computer sciences, the percentage of women has reached a plateau or dropped during the past decade."

The NSF data show, furthermore, that those "other areas" tend to be in precisely those disciplines and sub disciplines that produce pop science New York Times bestsellers, major public policy books, and the like. In 2011, women received 49.5% of all social science doctorates. But within economics, they accounted for only 34.4% of degrees awarded; in political science, 43.1%; and in international relations, 37.7%. Women received 72.1% of all psychology Ph.D.s, but only 56.7% of all cognitive psychology and 62.3% of all experimental psychology doctorates — as compared with 90.9% of family psychology doctorates. Only 18% of newly ordained physicists were women, suggesting that we should not hold our breath for a female Brian Greene or Freeman Dyson anytime soon.

And, for the purposes of talking about The Count, that's the issue — the lack of Greenes and even Dysons. Not only are there are fewer women with doctorates, but on top of that, far fewer of them apply for tenure-track jobs, so consequently there are fewer economists, IR theorists, cognitive psychologists, and physicists. As a result, publications have a smaller range of books in those subjects written by qualified specialists, and also a smaller range of qualified reviewers. 

Moreover, out of that already reduced pool, women publish less. It's recently been quantitatively established by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West at the University of Washington that they publish less in academic journals, and that, when they do, they tend do to so from an inferior author ranking and with less professional influence. No similar study has been conducted of monographs or trade books, but it does not seem implausible to conjecture that you'd find the same effect.

None of the politics books on the Economist's Best books of 2012 list were by women, nor any of the economics nor science books; of the history books, only one, Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain, made the cut. Of the New York Times's best nonfiction books of 2012, women wrote just two of the current events or policy books — and both of those concerned, in large part, Michelle Obama. Of the science books, Florence Williams's Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History was the sole book not written by a man. When Charles Murray's Coming Apart, one of the most widely discussed social science books of the past year, came out, it was reviewed by a male critic in the New Yorker (Nicholas Lemann), New York Times (Nicholas Confessore), New Republic (Timothy Noah), New York Review of Books (Andrew Hacker), Wall Street Journal (W. Bradford Wilcox), the Nation (William Julius Wilson), and, one imagine, many more publications. The only review by a woman I could find was in Salon (Joan Walsh). 

Even if this were a case of sexism on the part of the editors running these publications —and I grant that it very well could be — "gender parity" in these lists would not look like a 50-50 split. It would reflect the number of women actually working in these fields, which remain highly imbalanced. And until we fix that deeper disequilibrium — one entirely separate from what goes on at the Paris Review's short fiction desk — the situation won't meaningfully improve.

The parties to blame here are the ones that produced a largely male professoriate and corps of trained specialists, pushed them to publish more, encouraged them to write for a broad non-specialist audience, and socialized them to want to do all these things. Only in the last instance, and even then not very effectively, can we point a finger at the editors who assign reviews. There are lots of factors hindering the development of a female Steven Pinker or Francis Fukuyama or Paul Krugman, and — while magazines should question their procedures for assigning reviewers for such books — the new books desk is, at best, merely a proximate cause. 

Let me reiterate that we have to take the VIDA numbers seriously. The fact that there's a huge gendered disparity in the authorship and reviewing for books like Coming Apart is a problem. In a better world, the makeup would be 50-50 (or better yet, we'd have moved beyond thinking in binary categories). But we have to look very closely at the information at hand. And that's where The Count can be slightly misleading. At first glance, the presentation of the charts make it seem as though the principal underlying issue is a bunch of literary magazines rejecting the creative work of too many women writers. And that certainly is one issue (as the Paris Review and Harper's charts show). But the New York Review of Books could publish poetry by women and assign only women to review only novels and memoirs by women until, say, January 2014, and it still wouldn't fix the more troubling big number — because the NYRB reviews a lot of books in philosophy, science, social theory, policy, economics, and foreign affairs. 

VIDA explicitly addresses itself to "the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture." But it's picking up a lot of non-literary noise along with the signal. And that's perfectly fine, because fighting for more women to develop high-profile careers in the sciences is also an important goal. It's important not to lance the horse when you really need to unseat the rider, however. And it's pointless to decry Robert Silvers and Katrina vanden Heuvel when they're merely dealing with a population whose composition is already imbalanced by the institutions that train the policy elite and scientific intelligentsia that will someday be qualified to write and review these books.