Why There’s Gender Bias in Media–and What We Can Do About It

The grassroots women’s literary group VIDA just released some frightening statistics about gender bias in publishing:

The New York Review of Books has 462 male bylines to 79 female, about a 6-to-1 ratio.

The New Republic has 256 men to 49 women.

The Atlantic published 154 male bylines and 55 female.

The New Yorker reviewed 36 books by men and 9 by women.

Harper’s reviewed more than twice as many books by men as by women.

The New York Times Book Review had 1.5 men book reviewers to 1 woman (438 compared to 295) and an authors-reviewed ratio of 1.9 to 1 (524 compared to 283).

VIDA’s report has ignited the blogosphere, with many commentators wondering, as Patricia Cohen does in the New York Times: Why?

What the numbers don’t explain is whether men write more books (and book proposals) than women or whether they more frequently and aggressively ask magazine editors for assignments.

But this isn’t an either/or situation; women face challenges at both ends. Publishers and editors are biased to think that men’s stories are the best and most important ones, deserving of publication and reviews, while women writers, socialized to those same beliefs, agree and don’t try hard or often enough to get published.

This double-challenge doesn’t only affect women writers; it muzzles women’s voices across all media.

For many years, I worked as a talk radio producer, and I had a difficult time getting women to agree to go on air, both as invited guests and as call-ins to the show. At first, I didn’t get it. Talk radio is practically a democracy, anyone can just pick up the phone–so why weren’t women calling?

At the station I worked for, all four of the full-time hosts were male. The general manager, program director and news director–the top three positions–were also held by men. When women hear male voices talking about stories that matter to men, they’re not as likely to call in. That’s not rocket science.

But here was the deeper mystery to me. Yes, I worked for a male host, but I suggested many of his show topics to him, and they were often issues I cared about. I booked most of his guests. I also chose which callers went on the program in what order, and I gave preference to women. Sponsors want more women listeners because women are consumers. So why was the show that I produced still so dominated by male voices?

I think women are afraid to go on air because they worry that they don’t have the skills to be effective. If one woman did make it on the show, immediately after hearing her more women would call in. But still, after making a great comment to me when I screened her, she’d often say: “Can you just pass it on? I’m too nervous to go on the show.”

When I invited a woman to come on the show as an expert guest, it was not unusual for her to decline. She’d tell me that she wasn’t really qualified, and then she’d recommend someone “better”–often a male colleague. In the seven years that I worked in talk radio, guess how many men who I called up recommended someone else speak instead of them? Not one.

Like a persistent suitor, I refused to take the woman’s first no as an answer, spending a lot of time convincing her to go on air. Not only did I repeatedly tell women that their ideas were important, but I coached them on how to deal with the aggressive host who they were afraid to talk to. I gave them tips on how to respond to other aggressive callers. Talk radio may be democratic in some ways, but the verbal sparring can be brutal and you need to know how to play to win. And you need to want to win.

My experience in talk radio showed me that if women had some basic training, at least part of the gender bias in media could be overcome. But it’s not the producer’s job to coach and train women. So I cofounded an organization, the Woodhull Institute, named for Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for president and also published her own newspaper. Woodhull trains women in professional skills, including negotiation, advocacy and public speaking. Woodhull also trains women in media skills, including the ones Patricia Cohen wondered about in the New York Times, like how to pitch stories and how to write and submit book proposals.

One training I do at Woodhull is to ask every woman to name three areas in which she is an expert. She can list anything from neurosurgery to breastfeeding to finance, but she has to admit publicly that she knows what she’s talking about. Most women have a hard time with this exercise at first. But after completing the session, they’re much more comfortable owning their expertise.

Another thing I teach Woodhull women is how to link the issues they care about with front-page news stories. They need to make their issues sound newsworthy in order to get coverage. It’s a simple skill, but many women don’t have it. When I was a producer and women did call me to pitch, especially progressive women, they often they acted as if I should put them on air because I’m a good person; I should just care about the issue. But, again, male or female, that’s not a producer’s job. Her job is to help create a timely and entertaining show that will boost ratings and attract sponsors.

You know who is the best of the best at pitching that I ever heard, hands down? The Hoover Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Instead of trying to pull me off into some tangent that had nothing to do with my job, Hoover and Heritage turned it around, making me, the producer, feel as if they were lending a hand:

Did you see the front page article in The New York Times about WMD? We have a Fellow who is extremely qualified to comment on that.

Let’s just say Hoover and Heritage aren’t exactly known for their glut of female Fellows.

Change will continue to be slow for women until they recognize that their stories and their viewpoints are important. All the producers and editors and media magnates in the world can’t help women get their voices out there until they decide to try. And keep trying. Because people will tell them, repeatedly, that they aren’t qualified or have nothing to say or, for whatever reason, don’t deserve to speak.

Reprinted from Reel Girl

Photo via Flickr user Mike Licht under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Interesting how inner confidence is so painfully linked to success & representation. Most women experience such radical change & upheaval when they experience the joy's of motherhood. A role which should show women just how exceptionally strong& vital they are to our society. Instead many women are harsh self critics of their parenting skills & easily allow this to transfer to their professional/working lives ( or what's left of them).

    Societies the world over need to place more value on mothers in all forms: stay at home, work from home & full time working mothers. Women (both mothers & non mothers) will retain their innate self confidence & belief and begin to overcome a system that has marginalized them for one of THE most important contributions they make to society.

  2. Pam Parker says:

    "Change will continue to be slow for women until they recognize that their stories and their viewpoints are important. All the producers and editors and media magnates in the world can’t help women get their voices out there until they decide to try. And keep trying. Because people will tell them, repeatedly, that they aren’t qualified or have nothing to say or, for whatever reason, don’t deserve to speak." In terms of writing and publishing, until women can overcome their fear of rejection and put their work out there, nothing can change. http://pamparker.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/rejecti

  3. Thanks for this piece, Margaret. I went to a panel on women and publishing at AWP. The discussion centered around why these statistics are still so pervasive in the literary community, particularly within the sphere of literary journals. Interestingly, the conversation was quite in line with what you're saying. Many of the (female) editors admitted that men are more persistent in their submission processes, even when the editors have attempted to make clear that the men's work is not right for their magazine. So the conversation spoke to this idea of women not feeling like their stories (literally) are worthy. It's no surprise really, when so much of our culture is centered around telling us what we can't accomplish. So thatnk you for bringing these thoughts to light.

  4. alyssdixson says:

    Can we also talk about how skewed THE SYSTEM is when 50% of the population is locked out of it? Seriously, instead of donning pin-striped pant suits and clipping our hair back, why don't we engage the system in a win-win evolution that casts aside gendered communication styles where "women" are timid and afraid of being bested or bullied and "men" are victors who conquer foes through superior force. I'm certainly glad there are places like Woodhull advocating and equipping women to participate in media positions, but certainly hope we can continue to push the discussion beyond "talk like a man" and into rebuilding the system from the ground up.

  5. What can we expect, born in a motherless country steeped in the glories of our founding fathers?

  6. Caroline Halliday says:

    Thank you for this fantastic blog. Why aren't these issues all over the media.. because again its male editors and women areoftenreluctant to push themselves forward for fear of being named as aggressive or as lesbian, or as feminist. Do you call yoursevles feminists?

  7. looking for a nonbiased Fem. perspective:

    High School newspaper has annual special Valentine Issue every Feb. In the issue we allow students to vote on their favorite couples for different superlatives. This year, out of the two hundred that we passed out to the students during their lunches, we recieved forty back. None were from African Amerian students. In the issue, not one African American couple won a superlative, although they had the opportunity to vote for their friends and themselves just like everyone else.

    Now to 'remedy" the situation, the march issue is being made to have black history couples, where students will again be given the right to vote for their favorite couple, as long as they are black. Is this right, or fair? What do you think?

    Our journalism book tells us no group should be treated with preference, all groups should be treated fairly, and unbiasedly, Is what we now have to do not a direct contradition of that statement?

    Honest answers please, just trying to obtain a well-rounded perspective

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