The VIDA Count and Female Representation in Media

From Agate’s Jali Becker, publishing assistant: Last year, women’s advocacy group VIDA caused quite a stir with its count of how few women are writing for major magazines and literary outlets, and of how many female authors receive review coverage compared to their male counterparts. Now VIDA’s back with the count for 2011, and the numbers hover, on average, around a 75%/25% split. This is not much better than in 2010, but as the VIDA website notes, significant cultural change takes time.

Agate president Doug Seibold blogged nearly a year ago about Agate’s own numbers, and I’m here to update them. In 2011, Agate Bolden (African-American fiction and nonfiction) published one man, Agate B2 (business and economic titles) published five men, and Agate Surrey (cooking, entertaining, and lifestyle) published seven women and three men. Looking ahead to our 2012 list, we will be publishing six women and four men across our imprints.

Emily Gould at The Awl had an interesting take on the VIDA count and the subsequent debate. She argued that all this hand-wringing denied female writers and editors their own agency: perhaps women writers and editors were simply choosing to work at and submit to places other than this select group of “Top American Magazines.” She writes, “It’s not difficult to imagine why some women (and men) might not want to write for these magazines: They do not, on the whole, pay well or assign articles with reliable frequency to, pretty much, anyone….That’s my issue with this tally, anyway: it doesn’t allow for the idea that women have agency, and they might be choosing to avoid having bad (albeit prestigious) jobs.”

One solution Gould mentions is for women to stop waiting to be accepted by these literary magazines and start their own, which brings to mind a message Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has been promoting for a while now. Sandberg argues that women have the capacity to enact the change they want to see within the business world; they just have to “lean in” and take opportunities that come by, rather than waiting passively. While critics have argued that this is an oversimplification of the challenges women face in the workplace, Sandberg’s efforts to create and nurture female networking organizations in the male-dominated Silicon Valley are to be commended and emulated.

Last year, Doug linked to a great interview with Gina Frangello about the irony at the sheer number of women who work in publishing and the fact that females buy and consume books at a far greater rate than males do. She’s right to point out that men are reluctant to buy books relating or even simply marketed to anything female whereas women will read books ostensibly about “male issues” or featuring more traditionally masculine themes (think the stories of Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy). This leads to a lopsided overvaluation of “masculine” stories at the expense of “feminine” stories, and a skewed sense of what is “literature” versus what is so often dismissively referred to as “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”. But, as Frangello says, women “need to take the [reins] regarding and really shape what the future will look like—we are not powerless, but thus far we have not always been our own best advocates in publishing.”

I agree with Frangello and with Sandberg that women need to be better self-advocates, and I’d argue that this is a skill that needs to be taught, just like any other skill. We need to learn how to network effectively, how to ask for what we want, how to go after that job or that assignment. We can’t assume that the people in power are going to realize our own value, because there will most likely be a (male) colleague or competitor who has, without a second thought, put himself forward as the best available candidate, regardless of how his qualifications stack up beside our own.

Just as importantly, we need to be seen doing this, and we need to teach our younger compatriots how to do so as well. Doug also linked to another great article last year about a female radio producer’s difficulties getting women to call in to her show or be guests. She wrote that more women were likely to call in after a female guest had been on the air or another woman had called in first—as though hearing another female voice was necessary to convince them that their viewpoints were important. People learn through example, and featuring female writers and books with female viewpoints helps set that example. Visible representation matters. And for that reason, the VIDA count should stir people up. It should be a call to action.

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