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3 to 1—Male Writers Dominate “Thought Leader” Magazines

October 3, 2006

Last fall, I’d been noticing a lack of female voices in what are supposed to be general-interest—and presumably gender-neutral—magazines. I wanted to find out if men were consistently getting published more than women, and if so, to quantify the disparity. Which magazines had the worst record of publishing women? Which had the best? I started a website, womentk.com, so I could share the results of my on-going study. I picked the following five magazines to track: The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, the so-called “thought leaders,” which also happen to identify themselves as general interest. (I omitted the newsweeklies because so much of the copy has multiple bylines.) Over the course of a year, the overall average shows that these magazines publish stories by male writers three times more often than they do stories by female writers, thereby supporting Ursula K. Le Guin’s hypothesis that “there is solid evidence for the fact that when women speak more than 30 percent of the time, men perceive them as dominating the conversation.” At The New Yorker, the ratio was four to one. At Harper’s, it was almost seven to one. These numbers are particularly surprising considering how many women read these magazines. The New Yorker, for example, has an audience of 1,799,000 women and 1,710,000 men, according to a 2006 report by Mediamark Research Inc. The Atlantic’s current audience, Mediamark Research estimates, is 609,000 women and 747,000 men. At Vanity Fair, there are almost three times as many female readers as male readers. When asked to describe the typical reader of The New York Times Magazine, editor Gerald Marzorati replied, “I imagine my reader is a late-thirties-something woman, a lawyer or educator or businesswoman. She’s busy with work, and also with family matters, but Sunday morning is a time she’ll allow herself to read something that is not work related, or kids’ homework related. She wants to lose herself in a story, one big story—8,000, 9,000 words. My hunch is she wants to read not something escapist but something substantive—something that holds a mirror up to her own life or opens a window onto a pretty troubled world” (Public Editor column in the New York Times, 10/9/05). What’s more, research conducted by Time Inc. in 2005 showed a decline in the number of men reading magazines, while female readership held steady (BusinessWeek Online, 11/07/05). The numbers speak volumes, but they’re not the whole story. As a former editor at The New Yorker wrote me in an e-mail, “in addition to counting bylines, you should look at what women are allowed to write about. I’ve been struck by a pattern, at The Atlantic in particular, where women only seem to write about marriage, motherhood and nannies, obsessively so. If you count the number of women’s bylines there that weren’t about hearth and home, the number would approach zero.” And a current student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism also noted, “At The New Yorker, it seems as though many of the female bylines aren’t for hard-news-type stories. Women write about dance, or they write the short story, or a poem, or a profile of a fashion designer, or something. But the ‘heavy’ stories are left to the guys.”
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