What's With Magazine Journalism and Women?

On April 3, the finalists of the National Magazine Awards were announced. They were very, very manly.

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On April 3, the finalists of the National Magazine Awards were announced. They were very, very manly. How manly? The total male/female breakdown: 12 women, 37 men, 1 un-bylined piece. As for that gender divide, it hewed to genre as well, with women named as finalists in service categories, their pieces usually about "women's issues," but not in the areas thought to be harder-hitting, like reporting, feature writing, profile writing, essays and criticism, columns and commentary, or photography. Clearly, there are women working in those genres—so why weren't they finalists? Were they just not good enough? (Doubtful). Or is there something more at work?

We asked that question then, and offered some explanations based on the history of magazines in general, which has traditionally positioned women to the service sections and placed men on the front lines of reporting. Now, Mother Jones editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlain have had an email conversation with American Society of Magazine Editors' head Sid Holt discussing the matter further. What did they find out? And, more importantly, what's to be done about the continued gender divide in journalism?

The first point Holt makes is one that we made as well: Judges were choosing among nominees provided by the magazines themselves. This doesn't mean the judges are excused from accountability here, but that the trouble goes deeper than a panel of ASME judges, who are not, in fact, all men—nearly half were women. Further, the ASME committee tried to prevent this gender divide in some form: Holt told Jeffery and Bauerlain, "I think readers are more likely to conclude that a bunch of middle-aged white dudes are in cahoots to deny women writers their due. You know how unlikely that is, given the way the judging is organized, and you know that ASME has done everything short of telling judges not to just nominate the big boys so that women's magazines, smaller magazines, magazines outside New York can get some props." Holt also acknowledged that there are problems beyond gender in terms of magazine journalism—ethnicity and a range of classes are not represented equally as well, and said, "I agree that the byline gap in the National Magazine Awards is indicative of a larger problem that deserves to be discussed." This doesn't mean, he argued, that we should knock women who write for, edit, or read service and lifestyle mags.

The Mother Jones editors responded, we think accurately, of the situation, "The problem originates not with any bias in the judging, but with too few women getting assignments for the types of pieces that fall into those categories. Perhaps it is compounded by too few deserving pieces penned by women being put forward by ASME member pubs. More broadly, women are often pigeonholed into certain kinds of assignments, and they pigeonhole themselves." But, "why is it that (most) men's magazines consider ambitious reporting and storytelling to be essential to their brands and women's magazines don't? Every woman we've ever met—including all the smart and wonderful women's magazine editors we've met through ASME—wishes it were otherwise."

Holt says the judges are judging what exists, not what we wish existed (a fair point). This gets at what this wrirter sees as a kind of apparent dumbing down in the magazine industry in general (Holt says audiences are too big, and gives the example of a theater showing The Hunger Games rather than an indie film like, say, Bully: It's how they're going to make money, is the subtext). Meaning, we suppose, that magazines are trying to please all, generally, with more mainstream work, as opposed to pleasing a few immensely with a higher quality and/or more challenging product—you see this across many industries. Beyond that, Holt says, investigative reporting and long-form features are rare in most magazines, whether they're read by men or women. This is a sad fact beyond gender, beyond the ASMEs, and we'll extrapolate: Can audiences help what they want to buy and read, and can magazine editors help wanting to give their readers what they think will sell magazines? Well, yes and no: Tastemakers are, after all, supposed to make tastes, not simply dole out what's expected, or what they think is—and certainly not to pander, as some women's (and men's!) magazines do, not that those are the ones getting the ASME nods.

Jeffery and Bauerlain go on to mention that there are structural factors impacting the gender byline divide as well, things that women in other careers face too, like taking time off to have children, and perhaps being less likely to cover traditionally male topics (wars, sports, etc) because of sexism. "As many, including ourselves, have written," they say, the "key to solving the byline gap is to get more women in editorial positions of authority." It does appear there's positive movement in this regard, but it's hardly enough, as VIDA pointed out back in February.

Still, none of this is really surprising. Women are still fighting for equal pay, for equal rights in many situations, for equality in health care coverage, and so on, and the fact that politicians seem to have mobilized around a so-called "war on women"—using it more frequently as a buzzword for their own campaigns than something that necessarily helps women (or does so secondarily to the cause of men getting elected) means that we've got a ways to go. The ASME awards, while reflective of a small section of one particular industry, actually speak volumes for an overall cultural situation. The good thing, we guess, is that people are talking about it.

Image via Shutterstock by Carlos Caetano.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.