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Female Writers Don't Get Bylines—And It's Not Always Their Fault

The dearth of female writers in major magazines and newspapers has become a chicken-or-egg question: are women too chicken to pursue journalism careers, or are editors sexist eggheads? Male bylines dominate "hard-hitting" genres like politics, opinion and serious essay-writing. Some writers and editors, like New York Times columnist (and the Times' first female opinion-page editor) Gail Collins, have said that the imbalance on mastheads also represents the ratio of contribution submissions: men simply pitch more frequently and more assertively. Meanwhile, others argue that sexism is alive and well in the world of journalism.

Last week, Jaela E. Bernstien argued in a Maisonneuve blog post titled "Female Writers Don't Get Bylines—So What?" that gender socialization is the real reason why more women don't pursue careers in publishing and journalism. Women are not encouraged to become tenacious, she wrote, making it less likely that they will be able to handle rejection, keep pitching story ideas and score assignments. Sure, women still face "social pressures and unwritten rules," Bernstien admitted, but "it is our responsibility as women to rise above these challenges rather than pull the gender card." The gender gap, Bernstien claims, does not begin in the editor's office, but in babyhood.

Well, sure. Many girls grow up being told to harmonize with others. Debating, fighting, self-advocating—that's for boys. As we explore our gender identity in pre-pubescence, the only media targeted at us pushes fashion and celebrities. If we're lucky, we will eventually find role models, even in male-dominated fields (I'm a film critic, and one of my heroes is the late New Yorker writer Pauline Kael, even if I vehemently disagree with most of her reviews).

But while Bernstien was right about socialization's effects, she missed the mark when she pointed her finger squarely at female writers. Certainly, diffidence has held us back and made many of us obsequious chickens. However, Bernstien forgets that gender socialization, and its accompanying prejudices, affect everyone—including editors, male and female. They may say they're supportive of female writers and wish that more women pitched stories, but, as Ann Friedman has noted, editors may need to actively seek out female writers if we want this to change. Editors' positions gives them a unique power to make a difference—and so far, most have not. They are not exempt from bias, even if they claim to be. Even if they've acknowledged a need to diversify their mastheads and contributor lists. Even if they're female.

Both in the media and other industries, prejudice can and does creep in. One study showed that blind auditions in American orchestras (where the judges can hear but not see musicians) increased the chance that a female musician would advance from the first round by 50 percent. Since American orchestras began implementing blind auditions, female representation in orchestras has increased from 5 to 36 percent.

It's not just appearance that affects hiring. It's also names—and for anyone represented by their byline, that matters. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that hiring committees for psychology departments were more likely to hire a male applicant, even if his female rival had equal qualifications. Both male and female administrators were more likely to hire a man. Neurobiologist Ben Barres, who transitioned from female to male in 1997, has been outspoken about the way it changed his work life. In a 2006 article for Nature, he wrote about how, as Barbara, he was discouraged from pursuing his studies at MIT and disparaged by fellow academics—but as Ben, his work has been granted significantly more respect. He once heard another scientist remark, unaware of his sex change, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

In 2009, James Chartrand, a blogger and copywriter, "came out" and confessed she had used a male pseudonym for two years—and that it had skyrocketed her career. "Taking a man's name opened up a new world," she said. "It helped me earn double and triple the income of my true name, with the same work and service. No hassles. Higher acceptance. And gratifying respect for my talents and 'round-the-clock work ethic. Business opportunities fell into my lap. People asked for my advice, and they thanked me for it, too." She still works under the name. We'd like to believe male pseudonyms belong to the era of George Sand and the Brontë sisters, but it's still an effective marketing strategy—hence why, before the Harry Potter books were first released, Joanne Rowling's British publisher asked her to initialize her name.

As Friedman and others have pointed out, the best way to increase the number of female writers in a publication is to seek them out. But simply assigning women more stories won't cut it. Women need mentors, sponsors—more senior colleagues and acquaintances who will go to bat for them. "A Woman's Place," Ken Auletta's New Yorker profile on Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, highlighted the importance of sponsorship in career advancement. Like Jaela Bernstien, Sandberg believes we live in a pure meritocracy, and that it is up to women to change their own situation; she suggests they learn how to negotiate their salaries and only have babies once they've found a career they love. But subtle gender bias and unacknowledged social scripts runs deeper than that.

More women than ever are reaching the upper echelons of editorial boards, but they still rarely reach the top-top, usually stalling at managing or associate editor. (The editors-in-chief of the Walrus, Maclean's, Globe and Mail, National Post and, yes, Maisonneuve are all male. Toronto Life and Quebec news magazine L'actualité are both headed by women.) Women are scarcely represented on business boards—including Facebook's, which has not asked Sandberg to join its board, despite her successes. In "A Woman's Voice," economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett said this isn't a glass ceiling—it is the "marzipan layer."

That's why we need more sponsorship initiatives like the OpEd Project Mentor-Editor Program, which encourages publications' opinion editors to consult more female experts and sets up new writers with mentors. Sponsors should include male editors, too—really, anyone committed to increasing gender parity in print. And instead of accusing each other of not trying hard enough and disdaining the idea of "women's voices," women would do ourselves a far better service if we acknowledged systemic and systematic obstacles and offered support. A good example of that is Ann Friedman's Lady Journos! blog, which highlights the best journalism and essays by writers who "happen to be women."

These tactics are much more organic than the quotas Bernstien scorns—but I'm not entirely against those, either. The Sandberg profile mentioned that Norway has many more women on business boards because of a 40 percent quota requirement. It's true that quotas can sometimes precipitate the advancement of less-qualified individuals, but that would not always be the case. Besides, in a group setting, it's just not that big of a deal; groups always consist of people with varying strengths and weaknesses, and the power of the collective overcomes any inadequacies. Quotas promote diversity and encourage the underrepresented to compete against each other for gigs. In a world that's roughly half women, how is this "tokenism"? If we support the inclusion of female writers, girls will see those bylines and hear those pundits and be encouraged to become writers themselves.

In her blog post, Bernstien claimed that having a "woman's voice" meant writing about "subjects traditionally associated with womanhood." "My viewpoints have no more grounding in my gender than they do in the fact that I grew up in a rural township or that I'm vegetarian," she wrote. "My voice is a malleable organism, the result of the combined and ongoing sum of my experiences."

But those experiences were also indelibly shaped by gender—and why deny it? Facing unique struggles because you are female, queer, a visible minority or disabled—the list goes on—gives you perspective that a heterosexual, middle-aged white male just won't have. That can be an advantage. A Canadian IT company, for example, may hire a Chinese executive not only because she can speak Mandarin, but because she brings business principles and know-how that Canada-born candidates may not have. In much the same way, a female reporter may be more inclined to cover stories that a man may not think of, or even be able to write at all; in many parts of the world, male reporters may be barred from even speaking with women, no matter how crucial their stories may be. Gender also changes what you can get away with. "To anyone who says there are fewer women than men in the writing community, I say: so what?" Bernstien wrote in her blog post, to a largely positive response. Imagine if a man had written the same thing.

Biases play an undeniable role in shaping institutions and public discourse, and it would be pointless to deny that. While a guiding framework can help an organization define their identity, biases—particularly those regarding employees' identities—make organizations stodgy and utterly blind to their own shortcomings. A former concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra once stated that he was against hiring women and visible minorities because they don't share the same "feeling." Clearly, there is still a place for diversity initiatives, and quotas can sometimes be necessary to keep biases in check. Editorial boards should remember that diversity is not about employing less advantaged groups to appease the public. It's about recognizing that others know things you don't.

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Related on

—Female Writers Don't Get Bylines—So What?
—Notes Toward an Essay on Women in Literary Journalism
—How to Make it as a Writer: Be a Man

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