Friday, February 11, 2011

Representing Gender: The Vida Count

By Kathie Felix

Sisters in Crime has been joined in the review-counting trenches by Vida, an organization of women in the literary arts. The group was founded in 2009 “to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversation regarding the critical reception of women's creative writing in our current culture.”

Vida’s 2010 review census was released at the beginning of February. Titled “The Count,” the study examines a group of publications in terms of their overall representation of women and men and a count by gender of book reviewers and reviewed authors.

The publications in the Vida project included The Atlantic, Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, The Times Literary Supplement and Tin House.

As might be expected, the news wasn’t good for women – as authors or as reviewers.

The New York Review of Books was home to the most unsettling statistics. In terms of overall coverage for 2010, the numbers revealed 79 women and 462 men. In terms of reviewers, 39 were women and 200 were men. The count of reviewed authors was 59 women and 306 men.

The New York Times Book Review offered better numbers, with 295 women and 438 men reviewing books in 2010. The number of reviewed authors included 283 women and 524 men.

One publication, The Atlantic, actually reviewed
more women writers than men. The count there was 19 women and 13 men. Overall, however, the magazine featured writing by 55 women and 154 men.

In the discussion following the release of The Count, many factors have been mentioned as possible considerations for the disparities, among them the number of published books written by women vs. the number written by men and the availability or aggressiveness of men vs. women in seeking editorial assignments.

Whatever the reason or reasons, the bottom line for many may be tied to U.S. Census figures that indicate that, as of Oct. 1, 2009, there were 155.8 million females and 151.8 males in the United States.

For others, the discussion goes much deeper than equal representation for statistical purposes. A world of unspoken expectation is shared with every generation when a spotlight shines on only one gender.

There are a variety of ways to deal with a disproportionate gender representation in the media. Studies like the SinC review project and Vida’s count can help bring awareness to the issue.

It’s also important to remember that sometimes advertiser-supported media can clearly hear the voices of its advertisers, even when it’s having trouble remembering who makes up more than half of the country’s population.

SinC board member Barbara Fister weighed in on the conversation with a comment on the Vida website following the release of the study: “Sisters in Crime, an organization founded 25 years ago to support equality for women writers in the crime fiction genre, has been tracking reviews of mysteries in the press for years. This is sadly nothing new nor something that book review editors have ever taken very seriously.”

It may be time to start thinking about an information campaign directed to targeted advertisers.

A closer look at the Vida study can be found online here.

What do you think?

Kathie Felix is the managing editor of the SinC blog. Previously, she spent 12 years as the managing editor of a technology magazine published for the education market. In an intentional match to reader demographics, the majority of the product reviewers she hired – and published – were women.


E. B. Davis said...

I think the answer is fairly simple. Answer the question of which gender buys the most books. The answer to that question should win. Doesn't the money always talk?

Sandra Parshall said...

And we know the answer: women buy more books, by far.

E. B. Davis said...

Of the review lists that were mentioned, I've tried some of their recommendations, and didn't like their suggestions. Now, I disregard those lists and don't even read them. So, whoever reviews and whatever they're reviewing doesn't effect my buying choices at all. I realize I am only one person who represents the buying public. But their choices alienate at least some of the public. Changing their choices will be a daunting task, but then there are others who recommend and promote women's books. Perhaps rather than trying to change the old dogs, helping promote women reviewers and writers is the better approach--which is already being done by this organization.

Barbara said...

One of the reasons newspaper publishers have traditionally given for not publishing more book reviews is that the book industry doesn't take out enough ads. Strangely enough, I haven't heard them say they will scale back on sports reporting because they need more advertising dollars from the NFL.

Women buy more books, and are more open minded than men generally about whether they will read books by men and women, and the rank and file employees at publishing houses are more female than male, but that doesn't seem to influence where publishers put their money or their efforts.

I'm proud to be part of an organization that doesn't take this state of affairs passively. Go sisters!

escoles said...

The missing elephant in the room here is this: What is the ratio of women to men among authors?

Since this stat is missing in all the discussions I've seen of this phenomenon, I'm wondering if that's a deceptively hard figure to get hold of.

Ideally what you'd like to see is the proprtion of women to men among reviewed books and among reviewers to be about equal to the number of books published and authors, respectively. But after reading several discussions of disproportionate representation in reviews and as reviewers, I've yet to see a citation of the publishing stats. I've yet to see it on either side.

At this point my assumption is that whatever those numbers are, they will still show a strong and disproportionate skew toward men; what would be very interesting indeed is if it could be shown that more women publish books than men. My hunch is that, excluding outliers like romance, the proportion of women in a given genre is not going to have a strong effect on the number of women who get reviewed in that genre.