There are a couple of theories. The most popular is that women pitch less, or less aggressively, than men. Harper’s editor Ellen Rosenbush said as much when confronted with her dismal statistics, calling the “dearth of female bylines” an “industry-wide issue.”
“When I saw the VIDA counts I thought, I don’t know why that is. I’m not in the right position to theorize,” Ms. O’Leary said. But having mentored young journalists, she knew pitching was a perennial concern, and one piece of the puzzle that could be solved. “I just thought, well, hey, why don’t we do something really practical?”
According to a blog post by former GOOD magazine executive editor Ann Friedman, the gender makeup of a magazine reflects the genders of its editors and their professional networks of writers. Shortly after the first VIDA count, Ms. Friedman started Lady Journos!, a curated feed of quality, nonservice articles and essays written by women, in the hopes of keeping female bylines fresh in the minds of assigning editors.
The token male on Tuesday’s panel, The Atavist founder Evan Ratliff, agreed that editors should take responsibility.
“We have had a really bad gender byline balance,” he said sheepishly. The Atavist, which publishes very long form nonfiction, has only published two pieces by women, out of sixteen total, since it was founded in 2011.
Boos, though polite ones, rose from the crowd.
“I knew I shouldn’t have come here,” he joked.
He explained that after the first two stories The Atavist assigned to women fell through (a total coincidence, he assured the crowd), they never managed to correct the ratio.
“There are a lot of male writers who just have a natural sense of entitlement to them,” Mr. Ratliff said. They just pitch and pitch until something sticks.
“It’s not a question of gender as much as it is a question of who feels entitled to take up the space,” Ms. Lanpher said, pointing out that Wikipedia has no editor and is 75 percent written by men. “They feel they can do that. It’s really not an ovary thing.”
With Jill Abramson at the top of The Times and Tina Brown at the top of Newsweek, it’s easy to forget that the publications were embroiled in landmark gender discrimination cases as recently as 1978 and 1970, respectively.
“The system at Newsweek was women researched and men wrote,” Gloria Steinem recalled at Monday night’s Women’s Media Center benefit. “It was absolutely airtight. So considering where we started I’m not surprised it’s still a problem.”
Whatever the causes, the gender awareness stoked by the VIDA count has added a new, political layer to the ritual grousing over National Magazine Award nominees. Ms. Friedman divvied up the count by gender this year and found no women had been nominated in prestige categories like feature writing, columns and commentary, essays and criticism, and reporting. (They fared better in the personal service category, home to “Would You Get a ‘Mommy Tuck’?”)
Meanwhile, election news analysis site The 4th Estate found that women contributed just 15 percent of the quotations in political articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and even named the worst offenders (will anyone volunteer to introduce Jeff Zeleny and Dan Balz to some chicks?), something VIDA has heretofore avoided.
“Shaming people has never really changed anyone’s mind,” Ms. Belieu explained.
VIDA was born from a viral email manifesto written in August 2009 by Cate Marvin, a poet and professor at the College of Staten Island. The AWP had just rejected a panel she had proposed for its annual conference, on the transgressive in female poetry, and she faced an absurdly large pile of infant laundry to fold. Writing to a handful of writerly friends, she likened herself to the narrator of Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.”
Ms. Belieu stayed up all night forwarding the email to like-minded women, who flooded Ms. Marvin’s inbox. They were frustrated that the conversation about women in the literary arts had devolved, in Ms. Belieu’s words, into “a retrograde, touchy-feely, moon-goddess-y, groovy” sort of thing.
Ms. Marvin and Ms. Belieu co-founded VIDA in part because, as established poets with professor gigs, they could speak freely about inequality in a way that made full-time poets and fiction writers more anxious.
“You undermine your ‘special woman’ status,” Ms. Belieu said, referring to those, like Louise Glück and Kay Ryan, who have been admitted to the literary boy’s club. “What happens when you go on the record as someone who doesn’t like this club?”