Counting the Women Online and in Print

Screenshot of the 2013 VIDA count, released yesterday (via vidaweb.org)
Screenshot of the 2013 VIDA count, released yesterday (via vidaweb.org)

If you are a woman writer who uses the internet, there’s a good chance you spent at least some portion of yesterday looking at (or bookmarking for later) the new VIDA count. For those unfamiliar with it, the VIDA count is an annual tally of the gender gap at literary publications. The admirable women behind VIDA compile the numbers of female vs. male bylines, female vs. male book reviewers, and female vs. male authors reviewed at such big-name publications as The Atlantic, The Nation, the New York Review of Books, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and n+1, as well as smaller journals like A Public Space, Fence, and The Missouri Review, and then format the results in pie charts. The numbers, this year as ever (VIDA has been counting in some form since 2009), are depressing.

Take, for instance, the New York Review of Books. In 2013 (the 2014 VIDA count reflects the previous year), 212 of the publication’s book reviewers were men, and only 52 women. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, 307 male authors received reviews in NYRB, as compared with 80 female authors. One hundred seventeen of the publication’s bylines went to men, 32 to women.

And no, the NYRB is not unique: its abysmal gender disproportion is rivaled by that of the London Review of Books (195 male book reviewers, 43 female), The New Republic (235 male bylines, 81 female), the Times Literary Supplement (907 men reviewed, 313 women), The New Yorker (555 male writers overall, 253 female), and Harper’s (82 male bylines, 25 female). No matter how you slice these pies, they are appalling.

I suppose I should point out that there has been some progress. Both The Paris Review and the New York Times Book Review have made notable efforts to improve their gender equality. Tin House continues to favor women. Still, if you’re a female writer, the VIDA count is a bleak read. It leaves me somewhere between drifting hopelessness and furious motivation.

Women and Information Technology, By the Numbers (via Women's Media Center) (click to enlarge)
Women and Information Technology, By the Numbers (via Women’s Media Center) (click to enlarge)

And that was before I paged through the “Status of Women in the US Media in 2014” report, which the Women’s Media Center published last week. The “Status of Women” report takes a much broader view than the VIDA count, compiling findings from various organizations to zoom out from literary publications to the media landscape in general: newspapers, radio, TV, film, tech, video games. Unfortunately, the results aren’t any rosier. A sample: the percentage of women in the newsroom has stayed static, around 36%, for the last 15 years; of 143 major newspaper opinion columnists, 38 are women; the 16 biggest paychecks earned by actors for a single film in 2013 all went to men; in the top 100 films of 2012, women had only 28.4% of the roles with speaking parts; in 2012, roughly half (47%) of all gamers were women, but they made up only 12% of game developers; 89% of tech start-ups are launched by all-male teams; of the 20 most-visited online news sites, women own zero.

Importantly, the “Status of Women” report brings race and ethnicity into the discussion. A number of women have rightly called out VIDA for not including these factors in its counts, part of a larger critique of mainstream feminism from feminists of color. Among those is writer Roxane Gay, who, in the past two years, conducted her own VIDA-style tallies focused on racial disparities at literary publications. (The numbers were dismal.) The “Status of Women” report is far from comprehensive or perfect, but compared with VIDA, it feels more nuanced and complicated (and therefore more realistic), telling us that 89.1% of the 2013 radio news workforce was white; that 67% of the guests on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show in 2013 were not white, versus 16% of non-white guests on all of the Sunday news round-ups on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC combined; that sports writers are 90% male and 90% white; that in movies in 2012, 41.1% of Latinas characters were “provocatively attired” and 39.3% partly naked.

2012–13 TV episodic director diversity over three years (via Women's Media Center)
2012–13 TV episodic director diversity over three years (via Women’s Media Center)

It’s hard to know what to do with all of this information, besides drown in it. Depressing statistics are doled out one after the other, in eye-catching infographics and charts to help lessen the blow. What is there left to learn, besides what so many of us already know (and others choose to ignore)? People write blog posts with takeaway messages and defenses of the count, but those people are always women, and those things have already been written. In the face of such thoroughly documented discrimination, the facts seem to render the commentary superfluous.

Types of jobs sought by journalism and mass communication bachelor’s degree recipients 2012 (via Women's Media Center)
Types of jobs sought by journalism and mass communication bachelor’s degree recipients 2012 (via Women’s Media Center)

I will say that all of this has gotten me thinking about art. We have our own watchdogs — the Guerrilla Girls, you might say, are a more artful VIDA, and then there’s the ritual of the Whitney Biennial count, which I’ve taken part in myself. But the art world reminds me of the publishing and literary worlds, in a certain way: when you look around, you see lots of women, so it seems safe to assume that things are OK. It’s only when you stop to count — museum directors, board members, auction prices — that the facade crumbles away. When it comes to racism, well, we’re not as good as hiding that. The fact that Carrie Mae Weems is the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim — only now, 75 years after the museum’s founding — is shocking. Change at a certain level looks both painful and profound.

Art writing has received far less scrutiny than art institutions. I haven’t done a formal count (yet), but I’m inclined to think that, gender-wise, we’re in decent shape; female bylines seem to abound. Then again, it may be that mirage, and when you begin to parse the regular reviewers, for whom criticism is a job, from the freelancers and side writers, things get more complicated, quite possibly more uneven. (A heavy overlap with academia also makes art writing difficult to analyze on its own.) On the subject of race, there’s no question, though: art writing is unacceptably white.

I realize I’m only touching the tip of the conversation here. There’s much more to be said, thought, and done, including identifying potential causes and brainstorming potential solutions. In the meantime, as we go, keep reading and keep counting.

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