2015 VIDA Count Reveals Progress on Gender, an Early Reckoning on Intersectionality

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For six years now, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has been “counting” gender bylines at literary and intellectual publications and watching progress either stall out or creep forward on the way to parity. For the first few rounds, there was little encouraging news to be documented, except at notable publications like Tin House and, later, the New York Times Book Review when it was taken over by female editor. But this year’s count, released today, suggests that progress on the gender front is actually beginning to take hold on a larger scale.

In the meantime, the organization has begun taking intersectionality quite seriously, asking writers in “counted” magazines to self-report on race, gender identity, and disability. Categories are notably specific, including a very detailed racial and ethnic breakdown (African, North African/Middle Eastern, and African American are all separate, for instance), gender and sexuality categories like “transfeminine” and “pansexual,” and disability categories that include neurological and physical.

While those numbers remain both less solidly reported (about 50% of the writers VIDA reached out to self-reported on these categories) and less encouraging in terms of representation — many categories are barely represented, if not entirely absent — the fact that such identities are beginning to be counted will hopefully encourage the editors of these magazines and newspaper sections to make an effort to foster other types of byline diversity, beyond gender. It’s a huge, ambitious undertaking for VIDA to begin counting all these categories, and each year their approach gains more traction. Even acknowledging that so many different identities exist and intersect will hopefully have the secondary effect of encouraging writers who may feel marginalized to plug away at submissions.

Returning to the original gender byline count, with its memorable pie charts, here’s the good news: the 2015 VIDA Count shows some serious progress towards gender byline parity at several “thought leader” magazines that had lagged in previous years, most notably Harper’s and The New Republic. VIDA writes, about Harper’s, that their “overall numbers reflect executive editor Christopher Beha’s public commitment to improvement. In 2015 the share of the pie for women was 38 percent (83 bylines by women), its highest since VIDA began counting. Bylines by women increased by 11 percentage points since last year, following last year’s 10-percentage point increase.”

For another heartening example, take a look at The New Republic, which has undergone quite a few shakeups. While the venerable publication lost a great number of its white, male contributors, who departed in a memorable huff when the publication was bought by Facebook’s Chris Hughes (who is now selling the publication to Win McCormack), the diversity on staff has absolutely skyrocketed, true to predictions.

Notes VIDA: “Last year we reported that The New Republic made good on its promise to change, with slight improvement in most categories. In 2015, we observed a dramatic increase, as women’s share of the pie increased to 45 percent, up 18 percentage points from 2014’s 27 percent.”

On the other hand, VIDA highlights the Paris Review as an example of a publication where progress can precede backsliding. Their byline count went from near parity a few years back back to majority-male this year:

Finally, The New York Times Book Review appears to be the shining paragon of steady change. When VIDA began counting, a lot of female writers (including Jennifer Weiner, most prominently, as well as this writer) were particularly miffed at the Paper of Record’s approach to reviewing books by women, with reviews by women. A few years after the kvetching commenced, the Times hired a woman, Pamela Paul, to helm the section. The change began immediately.

Looking at the numbers as counted by VIDA, the progress is slow and steady, something we’ve seen reflected in the year-end tally of “best books,” as well as the overall byline count:

The steady leveling of the playing field at so many of these publications after six years of counting is encouraging because it shows what a direct appeal can accomplish. Unlike movie studios and even publishing houses, the staffs at literary and political magazines are leaner and can respond to critique more quickly and nimbly, setting an example for other industries to follow.