There are also the issues of self-selection that others have posited as possible reasons for the ongoing gender disparity among authors. Judith Shulevitz, author and former science editor at The New Republic, suggested to me one evening that women with young children might be less willing or able to travel than men in the same position. There's also the possibility of what I've come to call the "superstar" problem—that because fewer women end up getting published, those who do can become such big names in their fields that they're genuinely difficult to get on a smaller show like Up Close.
In the end, I'd find that booking lists needed to be far more than 50 percent women. To get to gender-parity, I regularly needed to make lists that were 80 to 90 percent women.
* * *
Increasing the proportion of women alone wasn't working, so I started playing with prioritization. By the middle of the year, I had a system. I broke up the potential guest list into three levels: If someone was listed as a "1," producers had to try to reach out to them and their team by any means available and receive an affirmative "no" before abandoning the effort to try to book them. A "2" required reaching out to the author in multiple ways other than simply the publicist for a given imprint. For those listed as "3," simply reaching out to the publicist would suffice.
My initial instincts that we might achieve gender parity through this method turned out to be completely wrong. Some of my first prioritized lists had nearly all women in the first slot, a super-majority of women in the second, and then a vast majority of the men in the third. My thinking was that if we put our strongest efforts into specifically recruiting women guests, we'd get the balance we'd been looking for.
Instead, we got the reverse: Over a month-long period in May and June, working off of these prioritized lists, we hosted 15 men and only 4 women.
It was a problem apparent not only to me, but to our audience. During this time, comedian Roseanne Barr responded to a tweet advertising yet another male author's appearance with one word:
It turned out that lists didn't just need to prioritize and have a super-majority of women, but they needed to prioritize women in a specific way. These days, making a list that's 50/50 for the highest- and second-priority authors, and making third-priority authors almost entirely women, seems to finally get us to the half-female representation we'd wanted from the start. Our lists still need to feature a super-majority of women, but this approach to prioritization is actually working to ensure half our guests are female.
Interestingly, our findings run parallel with a lot of what’s known from affirmative-action policies: It's not at the top tier or the middle tier where you can suddenly create balance in diversity, because those pools are only so large. It's at the tier where, for the most part, anybody on the list is as valuable and welcome as anybody else in the tier that prioritizing a discriminated-against group can achieve a great amount of difference. I can't make more highest-priority guests be female, but I can prioritize women over men at the level where they represent the same value to our show. For me and for my audience, any relatively obscure scholarly work by a woman will have as much value as a relatively obscure scholarly work by a man.