Closing the TV-Guest Gender Gap

A host reflects on the many challenges of trying to make half of his interview subjects women.

On my show Up Close, which airs on The Jewish Channel, I interview book authors, including journalists and other public intellectuals. We’ve featured a broad spectrum of voices in the world of contemporary American ideas, including broadcast journalism figures like NBC's Chuck Todd and PBS's Tavis Smiley, as well as MacArthur Fellow Ruth Defries, and Lucinda Franks, who was once the youngest female Pulitzer Prize-winner. In January, the show celebrated one year on the air, but the anniversary also marked another accomplishment: As of the 46th episode, I had interviewed exactly 58 men and 58 women.

The question of whether women can and should be equally represented in media—whether on roundtable shows or in The New York Times Book Review—is often asked but rarely answered. Over the past year, I’ve made my studio into something of a social-science laboratory in the hope of responding once and for all. Yes, Up Close managed to achieve the gender parity that’s so elusive on television, but not before my team and I got a detailed look at the obstacles that lie in the way of equal representation.

You don't have to be very close to the TV or publishing worlds to know that the 50/50 ratio Up Close aims for is far from the norm. More typical is the 74/26 ratio of male to female writers whose books were featured in the London Review of Books in 2011, or the 15 percent of editorial pages, corporate boards, and congressional seats the OpEd Project estimates that women occupy. According to Vida, a group for American women writers, similar ratios are in play at almost every major literary journal and intellectual magazine.

I had thought that closing the interview gender gap would be a simple combination of awareness and effort, but I quickly learned that there were complicating factors. Publishers tend to do a better job of promoting male authors, and it was much harder to secure interviews with household-name female thinkers. Women already face disadvantages in academia and journalism, so there were murkier issues of self-selection involved as well.

I'd estimate the Up Close team has put in more than twice as much time and effort into booking guests as we would have if we ignored gender ratios. But it's been worth it for all the compelling interviews and books we would have otherwise missed out on. There have been other rewards, too: Poring through book publishers' catalogues to find titles authored by women led me to Tracy McNulty’s Wrestling with the Angel: Experiments in Symbolic Life, a book that's by far had the greatest impact on my thinking this year.

The first excuse I often hear for why gender parity can't be achieved in forums like our television show is that the pool we're drawing from isn't diverse enough. Indeed, the vast majority of books that get published in a given year are authored by men. This is a ratio skewed even further by the kinds of genres and subject matter I wanted to include in the show. A show like Up Close is biased against novelists, because of the complications of revealing some (but not too much) of their story to an audience that largely hasn't read their books; cookbooks don't do well outside of a kitchen set; and I like to limit self-help and memoir.

But when we started producing Up Close, I didn't think about any of that. The very first efforts to sign up guests had me simply making lists of the books and authors that seemed most interesting for me and our viewers and listeners, while trying to be "gender-blind."

Generally, I draw up lists that are five or 10 times as large as we actually have slots on the program, because many authors—especially on the journalistic/academic end of things—simply won't be available to come to our Manhattan studio at all, or won't be able to do so on a date and time that works for us. Very quickly, this "gender-blind" approach proved a failure for our purposes: Our first 10 guests for our first 5 shows were all men. And frankly, they were all good guests to have. But it made me realize we shouldn't simply be asking, "Is this person interesting enough to bring on our air?" Rather, a longer question was required: "Is this person interesting enough to bring on our air, knowing that if the person is a man, he'll be taking a woman's place?"

* * *

Creating a list of potential guests that was 50 percent women was an obvious starting point in creating a gender-mindful balance. Because so many more published books are written by men, finding enough women authors to create that balance required more than twice as much effort. One imprint that publishes a lot of the kind of work we like to feature on Up Close, Basic Books, had 20 men to 4 women in its catalog (and two of those women ended up on the show).

As I'd quickly learn, however, giving my producers a list that was 50 percent female wasn't enough. Another obstacle became apparent: promotional disparity. While publishers produce vast quantities of books each year, their willingness to promote those books varies greatly. We soon learned that male authors typically had far more opportunity to come visit us in our studio than their female counterparts.

For a show that focuses on in-depth, 20-to-30-minute interviews, a guest who can only appear via satellite or Skype is far from ideal. And that means someone has to be willing to pay to get authors to Manhattan with time enough to spare to have them sit down with me. For many authors, particularly the underfunded academics and journalists we often pursued, travel budgets weren’t always available.

To get a sense of the gender disparity in book promotion, I did an experiment last May at the largest gathering of the book industry, Book Expo America, which attracts tens of thousands of people annually. Each year, authors make appearances and publishers let loose with some of their more novel promotional ideas, such as the effort for Susan Jane Gilman's novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, which had costumed folks distributing ice cream to attendees. (I didn't have any ice cream, but I did eventually have Gilman on Up Close.)

I randomly chose several booths and counted the number of male and female authors represented in each display. I even took pictures on my phone and started tweeting a few results:

I stuck with the same theme at Wiley's business section, where large posters calling on attendees to "Become A Leader" and "Reach Your Potential" advertised 36 books, only two of which were written by women. At a few more booths I found a 13:3 ratio at Perseus, 11:3 at Prometheus, 13:2 at Lyons Press, and then one pleasant surprise: Macmillan's booth, one of the largest at the convention center, had 25 posters on its walls, 13 of which featured women.

The amount of financial support an author can expect while publicizing a book goes beyond publishers. I'd occasionally hear from academics coming into the studio that their travel was being covered by their departments. Several guests who appeared on Up Close had planned a trip to New York anyway and wanted to drop by the studio while they were in town, meaning they had the disposable income to do so. Sometimes, an author was brought to the city to lecture by a university or cultural organization, or to speak at a conference, in which case the gender selection of other institutions played a role in determining which authors were available. In all of those scenarios, the disadvantages women face in academia and journalism (and the workplace generally) had knock-on effects that made men much more available than women to come to our studio.

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.

Even though we finally managed to get equal numbers of male and female guests, we ended up with a number of household names who are men. I don't think we can say the same about any of the women who appeared, and in particular, booking feminist authors proved quite difficult. Somehow, we were able to get the Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich on the show, but not Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit, and several other prominent feminist writers, although I did interview the Book of Jezebel editor Anna Holmes.

Still, even after this year of experimentation, there are things we haven’t figured out about why it's been so hard to get to gender parity. And we haven't even begun to talk about other areas of diversity. Up Close definitely didn't come anywhere close to being representative of the racial diversity of America, though we certainly had far more racial diversity than the average publisher's catalogue. Getting to that next level would be even more difficult—requiring us to not only search for a pronoun in the author's biography, but for a picture, and then deciphering that picture while working from a yet-smaller pool of published authors.

In a final analysis for our first full year of Up Close, our lists totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 potential guests. Because those lists were overwhelmingly made up of women, we had to reach out to well more than twice as many women to achieve parity. In the end, the likelihood of getting a male author I'd listed to come into the studio was somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2; for women, the odds of someone listed as a potential guest to make it into the studio were closer to 1 in 7. And even those wildly disparate ratios don't show the true difference at play here, because there were many men we cancelled or eventually passed on booking to reach our gender target. On the other hand, I can't think of a single woman we'd listed who gave us a reasonable time and date to appear whom we turned down.

In any case, we're now half a dozen episodes into year two of Up Close, and we’ve already shot a total of 24 interviews. This time around, our gender differential is the opposite of where we started: 16 women have come in-studio for our 2015 episodes thus far, compared to eight men. It seems we've finally cracked the code on getting to proportional representation on our show, even if we haven't yet figured out an easy way to do so. Still, it’s an effort I’m convinced it is important to make.