What Does It Mean That the Majority of ASME Finalists Are Men?

The National Magazine Award finalists have been announced, and women are not represented at all in reporting, feature writing, profile writing, essays and criticism, columns and commentary, or feature photography. 

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The National Magazine Award finalists have been announced, one day after NYU announced the predominantly male 100 most outstanding journalists of the past 100 years. And like NYU's list, the ASME's are pretty male-dominated. Unfortunately, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that men are taking home the lion's share of the awards in categories like profile writing, feature writing, reporting, and essays and criticism. After all, women's literary organization VIDA crunched the numbers of female vs. male bylines in a range of magazines back in February and found that, yep, by and large, more men than women are published as contributors, "even if," as Megan O'Rourke writes in Slate, "the ratios at literary journals are notably less lopsided than those at more politics and current events-oriented magazines." If, as VIDA put forward, there are more male contributors published than females, by numbers alone it would follow that there'd be more men in the overall pool to draw from for excellent writing.

Ann Friedman has gone another step with the ASME finalists list and counted out the bylines, adding links to the stories and determining how many men versus women have been nominated in each of the categories. She writes, "Women hold their own or dominate in servicey categories (public interest, personal service) and fiction. They are not represented at all in the categories of reporting, feature writing, profile writing, essays and criticism, columns and commentary." The total male/female breakdown: 12 women, 37 men, 1 un-bylined piece.

So, what do we make of this? Are women simply not represented in those other categories? (A look at various bylines around the publishing community requires us to reject this hypothesis, even if women may be represented less in certain categories.) Are women simply not as good in these categories as are men? (We're rejecting this based on the fact that it's simply not true.) Are men more likely to be hired for jobs by certain companies, and in certain categories? (Probably.) And might men have relationships with certain magazines and certain editors, as well as being more exposed to and accepted in certain beats? (Probably as well.) Beyond even considering the politics of an ASME vote, one also has to look at the magazines represented and their readership, as well as the categories and possibly even the entire history of journalism to fully understand all of the complications here, which are oversimplified in a cursory, accusatory "More men than women are ASME finalists!"—even though that sentiment is true.

For example, in a category like profile writing, you have ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Men's Journal among the 5 magazines with finalists—these are magazines traditionally written and edited by men (with some exceptions), and also traditionally read by men. Conversely, the magazines offering personal service stories, where more female writers are represented, are primarily magazines written, edited, and read by women. And keep in mind, these magazines offered up what they considered their best pieces (and writers). But—and here might be the most interesting question—how many female editors have been involved in the conceptualizing, editing, and eventual publication of these stories, and how many men? Certainly, among editors-in-chief, there are more men represented than women (with, again, the exception of women's magazines), though the lower-ranking editorial staffers, in the jobs that may not get the glory but are necessary to keep the publications running on schedule and afloat, are very often women.

When VIDA published their findings, they wrote, "the literary community went into hyper drive responding to the information VIDA had gathered: furious debates over The Count took place in comment boxes, both nationally and internationally; women writers are discriminated against and should be righteously indignant; women writers are whiners and should simply write better books; women writers should write about more 'important' subjects; women writers’ subjects are just as important as male writers’, dammit!; women writers’ subject matter isn’t inherently different than men’s, it’s just reviewed differently; women writers should submit more work to magazines; male writers should submit less; editors should actively solicit more work from women writers…"

Certainly, we could apply all of that to the ASME finalists announced today: Should women be better represented? Should women try harder, or write about different things? Should magazines have nominated more women? Should editors more actively solicit women in an attempt to level the playing field? These are all questions worth some thought.

But all things considered, the best person should be awarded in whatever the task is, regardless of gender—and everyone should do their best at whatever task they've chosen for themselves, whether that's writing a service piece, or reporting from the front lines of a conflict, or selecting the best ASME finalists. Gender equality, after all, is not about bringing everyone to the middle but allowing everyone a fair chance to shine for themselves, at least in this blogger's opinion. And sometimes counting out who won and who didn't on the basis of gender is counterproductive, the equivalent of keeping a tally for tally's sake, and something to be angry about rather than something to note and improve on. Ultimately, gender should be a secondary concern with good writing; the first and most important thing is that the writing be good. And if knowledge of a writer's gender doesn't dominate what we're reading, if, in fact, it's rather a second thought (or none at all), should it be a factor in an ASME vote? Perhaps the best thing any of us could do is to seek out and read those we consider the best—whatever gender they happen to be.

Image via Shutterstock by Carlos Caetano.

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