The New Republic Owns Its Girl Problems–Convincingly!

Editors from the most prestigious magazines–New Yorker, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, and The New Republic–responded to recent reports of gender imbalance at The Sisterhood today. All gave boilerplate responses: We know it’s bad. We’ll try harder. In the meantime, did you know we publish female writers x, y, and z?

Not very encouraging. Except for The New Republic!

Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at the magazine (which had the worst ratio, with only 15 percent of pieces written by women), gave the most personal and thoughtful response. It did way more for the magazine’s reputation than any affirmative-acting, stat-juking freelance commissions could do:

I was asked to contribute my thoughts about the gender disparity at the New Republic. I should say at the outset that, despite my misleading title, I’m not an editor, I’m a writer. I don’t hire, fore, commission or edit pieces. I can’t speak officially for the magazine.

Of course, this raises the question about why I’m jumping into this issue at all. Most men in our business want to stay away from this question, because to jump into this debate without endorsing the most pat feminist answer is to volunteer yourself as the defendant in a sexism trial. And so the conversation takes on an echo chamber quality of women agreeing that the issue is sexist editors.

I’m volunteering myself for what I’m sure will be a great deal of abuse because I care about this issue and I’ve followed it for a long time. Your audience probably will not agree with a lot of what I write here, but I think they deserve the compliment of serious engagement.

The New Republic practices what I’d describe as a mild form of affirmative action. I’ve seen conversations where editors notice that the contributor lineup to an issue is too male, and see if they can remedy it. Our Reporter-Researcher internship program, which is the main pipeline for developing staff members – I came through it – has essentially a formal floor of at least one female in every class. An all-female Reporter-Researcher class is acceptable (we had one recently) but an all-male class is not.

TNR appears to me to be a place where women can thrive. I’ve made a lot of female friends in my 15 years here, some of them very close friends. Now, I know enough about gender dynamics to understand that even a close friend might not let on if she detected a sexist atmosphere. I won’t flatter myself to claim insight into the internal perspective of women in my office. But the external evidence that I see is that women can experience a great deal of career success here. When I was an intern, I was mentored by a female staff writer, and hired by a female editor. We have, and have had as long as I’ve been here, brilliant female staffers, editors and outside writers.

All that said, it remains a majority male magazine. I’m sure the maleness, to some degree, has a self-perpetuating quality – women are more reluctant to apply to a heavily male staff, so the staff remains heavily male. But I believe the bigger factor by far is that opinion journalism disproportionately attracts men.

My explanation, which I can’t prove, is socialization predisposes boys to be more interested both in producing and consuming opinion journalism. Confidence in one’s opinions and a willingness to engage in intellectual combat are disproportionately (though not, of course, exclusively) male traits. I’ve come across several writers in my career who are good at writing in the argumentative style but lack confidence in their ability. They are all female.

Now, a magazine can try to encourage women to have more confidence in their opinions and their right to engage in debate and challenge others. I like to think I’ve done my part here. But overwhelmingly, by the time they reach this stage in their career, the battle has already been lost.

At TNR we do well finding female journalists who excel at writing news stories, foreign dispatches, profiles, and other reporting-driven pieces. We have a harder time finding women who feel comfortable with opinion-driven journalism. And since opinion journalism is the magazine’s primary genre – it was defined in 1914 as a “journal of opinion” – this is a severe handicap in terms of attaining gender parity.

A further handicap is this: TNR represents the top of the opinion writing totem pole, but not the top of the feature writing totem pole. When we develop writers or editors who excel at features or other news-driven pieces, they eventually get hired away for a lot more money at magazines like the New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine. Our writers who focus on argument-driven pieces don’t. The former group contains a mix of men and women, while the latter group is almost exclusively male.

I’m sure this will strike many of your readers as a self-serving explanation, even though, as I noted, I have no managerial responsibility. But any problem has to addressed by defining it correctly. Our editors and staff should be aware of the importance of gender diversity – I believe they are – but there is only so much that can be accomplished through editorial willpower.

I want to be clear that I am not defining this as a non-problem. It is a problem. I have a young daughter who, through my admittedly biased eyes, has displayed a curious, morally passionate, and deeply analytical mind at a precocious age. I want her to grow up a fearlessly opinionated woman. I would be very happy if she decides to enter opinion journalism. And I fear that somewhere along the way she will receive signals that hold her back. That is the primary thing that I think needs to change.

Now we just have to read everyone the Lambert Manifesto, and we should be set.

kstoeffel@observer.com :: @kstoeffel

The New Republic Owns Its Girl Problems–Convincingly!