VIDA: A Case Study

Last year, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts released “the Count” a magazine-by-magazine rundown of the gender breakdown of work published in top-flight magazines such as The New Republic and the New Yorker. They found that across the board, women were published far less often than men. Moreover, women also had their books reviewed less often, and so on.

Understandably, people were pretty darn peeved.  And when you look at the numbers, the disparity is shocking. Well, VIDA just released their 2011 count, and the numbers haven’t changed all that much.

When the original 2010 Count had been announced, I engaged in some lively debate online. Specifically, I had a number of questions. Essentially the entire VIDA debate (and the pie charts they produced) seemed to assume a few things:

(1) there are an equal number of female writers out there

(2) they submit work to the listed venues as often as their male counterparts

If both of these statements are true, and women are rejected more often than males by these venues, then this is due to sexism.

I have no problem with this argument; actually, I wholeheartedly agree with it. But both premises have to be true for the conclusion (sexism is the result) to stand. When the 2010 count came out, I argued that while the first premise is no doubt true, I had my doubts about the second. In other words, one pie chart isn’t enough. You need two. One for submission/gender and the other for publication. Unfortunately, arguing about the New Yorker or the New Republic was pretty fruitless, as there’s no way to know their submission/gender breakdown.

Knockout’s another story, however. Over the past year, Knockout’s started using Submishmash, and it’s been a lot easier to track all of our submissions. So I decided to put my theory to the test, and I ran Knockout’s gender/submission numbers for the past year.

A note about process:

(1) I exported all of our submitters, deleted out all the extraneous information and left only the submitter’s first name. (So if they submitted more than one, they got counted twice.)

(2) I then went through and manually designated them as male or female. For names where I wasn’t sure or had no idea, I deleted them. There weren’t too many of these, as I often recognized folks who had submitted in the past.

(3) Then I compared it to the gender breakdown in our past three issues to see how things matched up.

(4) Please note, I did this really quickly, so I may have miscounted.

As it turned out, I was right—and wrong.

Over the past year, here are the numbers:

Total Submissions: 496

Male: 305        61 percent

Female: 191     39 percent

I was correct that we get more submissions from men than from women. (This may have to do with the fact that Knockout publishes a lot of GLBT work and we get more work from gay men than from lesbian women. I don’t know why, we just do.) Even so, this has an important impact on the final results, as it makes a 50-50 gender/publication breakdown unlikely from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean sexism is the reason; rather, it’s a matter of submission volume: we just don’t get as much work from women. On the contrary, a magazine could conceivably get fewer submissions from women and publish more of them proportionally than work by men.

Now for the purposes of this post, I’m assuming that last year has been pretty typical. (n previous years, we used Gmail (a goddamn mess!), and there’s no easy way to track submissions there, so compiling this data just isn’t possible. So if in 2012, for Knockout to be truly equitable, we’d need 39 percent of our contributors to be women, as that’s proportionate to the number of submissions we get from women.

That’s where I was (mostly) wrong:

Here’s the breakdown:

Knockout #4, Total Contributors: 28

Men                                      20                                  71 percent

Women                                 8                                    29 percent         (spread: -10)

Knockout #3, Total Contributors: 39

Men                                      27                                  69 percent

Women                                 12                                  31 percent         (spread: -8)

Knockout #2, Total Contributors: 34

Men                                      19                                  55 percent

Women                                 15                                  45 percent         (spread +6)

So the good news: Hey, we beat the spread once, and we weren’t that far off in the other years. (I’m ignoring our first issue for our purposes, as the work was mostly solicited.)

The bad news: We’re not perfect and I was a bit surprised by our KO-count.  In addition, it’d be good to get more submissions by women. Women of America (and elsewhere): consider that a call for submissions. When our next submission window opens, send your work our way, yeah?

Update #1: Danielle Pafunda has an interesting post up at Montevidayo in which she addresses the “slush pile defense” that I make above. I’ve got some comments on it, but they’ll have to wait until tonight.

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6 Responses to VIDA: A Case Study

  1. Ha! I’m so glad to be dishing this out with you again. We should make it an annual event. Every time VIDA announces their numbers, we’ll find a place in blogosphere to talk about it. :-)

    You have a very valid point when you say that numbers showing less female authors published doesn’t automatically scream sexism unless we also look at how many women were submitting their work. I too had some problems with what VIDA’s data actually showed, as I mentioned when we duked this out on Bark.

    My big shocker was how few reviewers were female, and how few women authors were reviewed by the major newspapers and magazines. The numbers there as so disproportional compared to the ratio between published men vs. women. This is a better indication that there is some gender discrimination going on.

    The best part of VIDA’s numbers though, is that since the first report came out, the debate is still strong and getting press attention. Obviously there is an issue here and making people aware of it is the whole point. As is proven by the fact that you took the time to run the numbers for your magazine—which is so very awesome.

  2. admin says:

    Asa: Cool, look for a response tonight, yeah? At worky now. — Brett

  3. admin says:

    Yo Asa,

    Yeah, I was pretty shocked by the reviewing numbers too. They just don’t seem to make sense. It seems pretty patent that they are actively preferring men over women when choosing books to review. I wonder what process (if any?) they use to go about selecting books for review.

    The post over at Montevidayo was a good read, too. The author makes a good point that submissions aren’t the only way to acquire work and that editors such yours truly can’t assign all of the blame for gender-publication discrepancy on the slush pile, as solicitation is certainly an option.

    With that said, we don’t solicit work nearly as much as we used to, as it’s hella time consuming and takes a lot of effort. (When I solicit work, I send a real-live letter and they take time to write.) When we do solicit, we’ve tried to ask from folks of all sorts.

    (Our first issue was the exception. It was entirely solicited and ended up being pretty male-dominated. We noticed that after the first issue was out and decided to make a conscious effort to be more representative, which our 2nd issue was.)

    The part of the discussion over at Montevidayo that bothers me, though, is the assumption that it’s mostly incumbent on editors to make sure that their magazines are fully equitable (50/50) even if their submissions ratios aren’t close to that. She suggests that to make up for this, editors should actively solicit female work to fill the gap.

    If one doesn’t do so, and the final publication rate therefore isn’t equitable, then I imagine she’d say that this is proof of sexism because there is something else the editor could have done to rectify the situation.

    But that seems a bit extreme. After all, when it comes to literary magazines, we’re looking to produce good fiction/poetry/non-fiction; this isn’t an exercise in representative demographics. While I certainly strive to make sure that the magazine is as representative as possible (given our submission ratios and the like), it’s not my primary concern. In other words, I care more about the work than who wrote it. I’d hope any editor would say the same, right?

    She also seems to suggest that it’s up to editors to make it clear that their venues are looking for work from women. While this point seems obvious, I did exactly that, and I mean it wholeheartedly. Still doing so felt oddly paternalistic and cheerleadery. Do women really need a man to tell them that it’s OK for them to submit to a magazine?

    (And I’m not trying to say that in a smarmy tone or anything. It’s just a foreign idea to me, I guess.)

  4. Women need anybody to give them special permission to submit to a magazine–that sits badly with me. The bigger issue is something Kathryn touched on when we talked about his on Bark last year, which is that if we are used to seeing “good writing” mostly from men, we may make that the standard. Topics, styles, word choices that are traditionally male becomes what has to be part of “good writing” and a great piece that doesn’t contain those elements is disregarded.

    Obviously, that is not something Knockout has to worry about.

  5. admin says:

    Yeah, Kathryn’s got a good point there. Part of the problem I think has to do with Modernism, which was a veritable sausage fest. That carried over to the next generation, and I can certainly see how that could contribute to gender disparity.

  6. Rosa Rugosa says:

    You might find this discussion interesting:

    http://poetryroundup.us/whup/index.php?topic=237.msg1916#msg1916

    To summarize, yeah, the stats are imperfect, and they don’t necessarily mean what the presenters think they mean, but they are far from meaningless.