Inequality in Publishing: What Can be Done?


By now you’ve surely seen the numbers. VIDA, an organization dedicated to women in the literary arts, has done an incredible service to the literary community by amassing the statistics regarding gender breakdown in publishing.

If you’ve seen the pie charts, then you know: women writers are in trouble.

So we must now ask ourselves: What can be done in the interest of equality?

Many people have been saying that this is a call for editors to step up their game. Editors ought to pay more attention to diversity in their publications. They need to reach out to more women writers. They must make a greater effort to review the books written by women.

I agree with this. Yet, after corresponding with a number of editors on this issue, I also wonder at how realistic such proposals might be. Since VIDA’s count of the gender breakdown in publishing last year—where the numbers were equally grim—I have heard many editors lament their lack of power to make such changes. Some variation of the following is always expressed:

We don’t have the resources to reach out to more authors than we already do.

It takes greater effort—follow-up emails, phone calls, letters—to get women to turn in work.

I have no time to consider gender when I’m reading through submissions. I’m only looking for quality.

These are not excuses. These statements, though disheartening, make sense. Even for editors who are sympathetic to the problem of gender bias, it’s easy to get lost in the fog of editorial tasks: deadlines, printer mishaps, website glitches, layout, applying for funding….What ought an editor’s priority be at a given moment—balancing their journal to include greater diversity, or making sure they have enough content to produce a journal at all?

If the editors of these journals are women, as they often are, that only makes these questions more difficult. Should they do what’s best for their own careers, or what’s best for women overall? In ideal circumstances, the crunch to put a journal together and the interests of social equality find common ground. But that is not always the case.

Meanwhile, editors at larger publications often work under greater constraints. If your periodical has acquired several thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising from Brooks Brothers or Axe body spray, are you going to review fiction, read mostly by women, or nonfiction, which men tend to read? Are you going to review a memoir by a woman or a memoir by a man? What’s more important for publishers—balancing the gender divide or staying on good terms with your advertisers so that you can pay your staff, many of whom are women?

Indeed, it is all quite complicated.

And yet, this very statement can lead so easily to apathy. It’s complicated, we say, and throw up our hands. It’s messy, we say, and focus our attention elsewhere. These problems are systemic, we sigh, because we all know systemic change takes forever.

So, I ask, what can be done in the interest of equality?

A great deal of responsibility does rest upon editors. Of course it does. Annie Finch has a wonderful open letter to publishers here about what steps editors can take toward achieving greater equality in their publications. Also, Cara Adams, editor of The Southern Review, offers some terrific insights about the submission process, the gender gap, and her role as both an editor and a mentor in this interview. And Danielle Pafunda has other smart commentary and advice for editors here.

But we can’t just leave it up to the editors to do this work for us.

If you are a teacher, what kinds of writing are you sharing with your students? I myself assigned three novels to three different writing workshops before it dawned on me, a year later, that I’d only assigned novels written by men.

If you subscribe to any magazines–literary or commercial–are you on board with their publishing practices? We live in an age of conscientious consumerism–buying local produce, supporting “green” business, enjoying fair-trade coffee. Why not think about where your subscription dollars are going too?

If you are a freelance editor or owner of a small business–have you ever purchased advertising space? Where do you buy your ad space? Do you look only at a magazine’s readership? Would you ever consider taking note of the magazine’s publishing practices toward women?

If you work in the advertising department of a magazine–might you solicit advertisers for women-friendly products? I can almost guarantee that if a magazine featured ads for hair products and yoga clothes, we’d see more books by women getting reviewed.

If you are a reader, do you have a habit of choosing literature by men? Why? Ever think about branching out a little?

If you are the owner of a major media conglomerate…Eh, nevermind. You’re not reading this.

The point is, everyone has a role to play here. You can ignore the numbers and continue on with your business. You can get angry at the numbers, but leave it for others to sort out the mess. Or you can ask yourself the difficult questions–how am I involved, what can I do?

And if you do ask that last question, I can promise you one thing: the asking becomes addictive, and soon you will see opportunities for change everywhere.


Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.