Where are the women writers?

WomenTK.com finds women writers appear in "thought leader" magazines at an alarmingly low rate.

Published September 21, 2006 7:24PM (EDT)

The final results are in: The ratio of male to female writers in major "thought leader" magazines is 3:1. Unimpressed? Consider that, of the 1,893 pieces surveyed, a measly 447 articles were written by women.

Last September Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a deputy editor at Glamour, started the wittily named WomenTK.com, with the aim of tracking the male-to-female byline ratios in five general-interest magazines: Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. It's not shocking that male bylines proved more common -- that's the no-brainer that spurred the WomenTK project in the first place -- but the extent to which men are outpacing women is staggering.

Of the magazines WomenTK followed, Harper's and the New Yorker were the worst offenders. Over the past 12 months, Harper's published 118 articles written by men and only 17 by women; that's an embarrassing ratio of 6.9:1. The New Yorker's ratio of 4.1:1 is also pretty dismal; out of 556 articles, 109 were written by women.

Davis Konigsberg -- who has ovaries of steel for taking on Condé Nast, which publishes the New Yorker and Vanity Fair as well as Glamour -- argues that the grim 3:1 ratio supports "Ursula K. Le Guin's hypothesis that 'there is solid evidence for the fact that when women speak more than 30 percent of the time, men perceive them as dominating the conversation.'" We shouldn't equate all men with the male editors of a few "thought leader" magazines, but it's startling to think that female participation can be confused with parity.

On to the big question: Will the results of Davis Konigsberg's project have any effect on women writers' presence in these magazines? The preliminary indications aren't good. When the Times wrote about Davis Konigsberg's preliminary -- though similarly striking -- findings last fall, Cullen Murphy, managing editor of the Atlantic, said, "The byline imbalance is endemic in public affairs magazines. At the Atlantic we are aware of the problem and have been actively taking steps to address it." Roughly a year later, that response seems to have been a bunch of white noise. In the past 12 months, Murphy's magazine has published 207 articles by men and 57 by women.

Possibly more interesting than the frequency with which women writers are published is the subject matter women are called on to write about. In an e-mail to Davis Konigsberg, a former editor at the New Yorker noted a curious trend at the Atlantic, where women "write about marriage, motherhood and nannies, obsessively so." Any bets on what a study of the actual subject matter of female-bylined stories in these "thought leader" magazines would turn up?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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