I’m not commenting on the numbers themselves, which are pukeworthy, or the gazillion hours I’ve spent counting things (an expensive–if you believe my time is worth anything–and dispiriting process). I’m developing, eep!, a very Twisty Faster reaction to the topic. If you don’t know the numbers are skewed, if you don’t understand what the skew means, it really isn’t my job to pluck your head up out of the sand and spoon feed you seventeen books of feminist theory. Except for when it is. I’m an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies. And: I love my job. I love my students. I don’t actually have to do any plucking or spooning. They’re inquisitive and analytical. This is Wyoming; they come in with tough questions. They come to class often with little experience of the discipline, little professional experience of any sort. They haven’t much been out in the adult world of careers, promotions, raises, cocktail parties, parental leave, aging, etc. They haven’t much been out in the world. So, when it’s a surprise to them that the wage gap exists and that our state has one of the nation’s most glaring gaps (the worst if you don’t discount the mining industry), or that even in the 25 top paying fields for women, fellas make more, or that the publishing ratios fall around 70/30 men/women, I’m excited to talk about how and why. I appreciate that men and women students alike find this unfair and weird and I never feel like jumping up on the table and yelling WHY IS THIS NEWS TO YOU? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? LIVING IN SOME SORT OF PROTECTIVE PATRIARCHY CAVE? Because really, they’ve been very busy becoming the adults who will soon have to go out into the mess we’ve made for them.
[Update: VIDA's 2011 Count can now be found here.]
The adults who have been out in the professional world awhile now, I hold to a different standard, though. I hold my literary colleagues to especially high standards–I can’t help it! They’re very smart! To these folks, I don’t feel inclined to explain the numbers or prove the numbers or even provide very many more numbers. Blargh. I do, however, need to say something about a logical fallacy that people inevitably employ to rationalize our literary numbers trouble. (If you’re curious about who said what when/where/how, please, visit a fine selection of the responses here.)
We need to know the submission ratios in order to understand these publishing ratios. No, I don’t think we really do. We know women submit less than men. Okay. This is a fact, and it would perhaps be a meaningful fact if we squinted and looked at it from a far-off ill-informed place. However:
1. Some editors seem quite pleased when their contributors’ gender ratio turns out to reflect the gender ratio in their submission pool. Why? This suggests that an editor is a fairly passive machine, an inbox that receives and selects writing, but doesn’t engender that writing or seek writing on its own accord. I’ve worked for/near/with a lot of literary journals over the past decade. I’ve never worked for one that published solely from its submission pool (often referred to as the slush pile). I have even occasionally worked for those that published only the smallest percentage of work from that slush pile, as most slots were already promised to solicted contributors. Of course, solicitations have their own numbers trouble. Some editors note that men are twice as likely (anecdotally) to respond to solicitations. By this, hands get tied, but editors could just as easily increase the number of women they solicit. An editor’s job, historically, has been to actively seek out writers. Publishing houses still do this, no? Go out and dig up new writers? It’s one of the perks, it’s fun. Beyond their solicitation control, editors have a great deal of influence over who submits cold to their journals. They write the little descriptions that go into the CLMP reference guide, the Writer’s Market, etc. They give interviews, they write the text on their own websites, they make the rounds at AWP. AND they publish work that sets a standard for what they’d like to see. Should they happen to want to change what/who they publish, well, duh, they’re going to have to somehow make that clear.
2. When we suggest that the submission ratio is important, we assume that the quality of each gender’s submissions will be identical. Social scientists. I married one. I work in an interdisciplinary program delightfully populated by ‘em, and they’re delightfully careful with numbers. Let’s say we’re a group of anthropologists trying to figure out what the submissions numbers mean. We couldn’t just count them up. We’d have to establish a rubric for evaluating the quality of each individual work submitted (impossible!), create a system for applying that rubric, and determine the ratio of publishable-to-unpublishable work in each gender’s submission pile. There’d be a lot of math involved, margins of error, etc. We’d apply for a nice fat grant to conduct this study, get paid to count stuff, and perhaps feel less grouchy about the time it takes. (& we’d still be left with gray areas and contradictions!) Since we’re not going to do that, I’ll speak anecdotally and hypothetically. I’d be quite surprised if, in our hypothetical study, we found the quality of men’s and women’s submission piles to be equal. In my experience, which is: 11 years, 5 journals from micro to major online to hardcopy across the aesthetic spectrum, plus a few book/poetry contests, let’s say a fair grand total estimate of 25,000 submissions read, gracious, I think I need to lie down! In my experience, then, on the whole women submit more consistently publishable work with regard to quality, appropriateness, etc. Men on the whole are more likely to submit unfinished work and/or work that doesn’t suit the publication for which I’m reading. Word Problem: Let’s say I’ve got a stack of 100 submissions from women and 40 of them are publishable. I’ve also got a stack of 200 submissions from men, and 40 of them are also publishable. Not 80! The journal has room for 20 contributors. How should I choose them? Show your work!
3. This brings us to overconfidence. Any number of sociological studies demonstrate masculine overconfidence. And we know that our culture initially rewards that overconfidence. Men are more likely to ask for raises (and to receive them when they ask). Men are more likely to take primary credit for collaborative work. Men and women both overrate men’s contributions, in quantity and quality, at work and at home. It sounds like I’m saying men are jerks, eh? I’m saying we teach men to do this. Culturally, we’re the jerks who tell them time and again, make sure everyone knows you’re the best. How can each guy be the best guy? What a nightmare! So, yes, in some respects, overconfidence can work to men’s advantage, but ultimately it’s prone to hurt them, and not just financially.
4. No one’s reading blind. Though most editors claim to read for the quality of the work, not the gender, demonstrating that your publication ratio reflects your submission ratio suggests that you are indeed reading gender. Either consciously or un-, you’ve always already divided out your submissions into those by men and women. Why not own and direct that tendency, rather than trying unsuccessfully to suppress it?
5. The suggestion that it’s only fair to publish work in the ratio that you receive work baffles me. Why? There aren’t any laws about this. The very editors who cry NO QUOTAS when we counters suggest that a 70/30 split is unfair and sucko turn around and insist that they’re tied to a quota system determined by their own slush piles. Yikes! Look: if you’re happy publishing 80% men, 20% women, fine. Own it! You make the decisions, and the rest of us are welcome to critique or celebrate those decisions. Call you a badass rebel, call you a tool of the patriarchy, subscribe to your journal, cancel a subscription. If you’re, on the other hand, somehow embarrassed or disappointed by your ratio, then blaming the submissions pool isn’t likely to improve the situation in any immediate, effective way.
6. Whether you work for a ginormous journal that receives 15,000 submissions a year or a small one that receives 2,000, you are likely receiving more good work than you can publish. Just a hunch: in the women’s pile alone, there’s enough good work for a fabulous issue. Between your cold submissions and your solicitations, you’re likely rolling in riches. Unless you feel bizarrely beholden to run a conceptual journal whose primary mission is reflecting the demographics of its submission pile, this slush-pile-ratio point is moot. And boring. A strawman, a distraction. Plus:
7. When the group in power puts the onus back on the marginalized group, it always leads to bad feelings. It’s rude, folks! Instead of telling (less powerful, less privileged) others how they can fix the problem, ante up, tell us what you’re going to do and lead by example. Yeah? Yeah! And, editors, let’s hold each other to it.
8. Oh, and maybe it’s gross to say, but as a writer, I’m kinda tired of competing for fewer spaces. When I was younger and surlier, I might’ve welcomed the challenge, strutted into it, but I’m so very busy, now. I’ve got real, worthy challenges to contend with. Here’s an advance smoochy thank-you for making this less my problem as a writer and submitter, more my problem as an editor. Whew. That feels better.
*Images courtesy of VIDA.