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It's a man's world: women in journalism and publishing

Over five years of on-the-ground research. Almost three years of writing and rewriting. And my book about migrant workers and African refugees in Israel just isn’t selling.

I’ve spent more than two years addressing everything in my control (with the help of an excellent literary agent who has sold some very big books). My experiences as a journalist–and some appalling numbers from the publishing industry–leave me to conclude that editors are passing on my book because I’m a woman.

I’ve also gotten the sense that publishers aren’t interested because the discourse about Israel-Palestine is locked into an overly simplistic discussion of a bilateral “conflict” when—as Israel’s treatment of migrant workers and African refugees shows—the conversation needs to be about the Jewish state’s denial of human rights to ALL non-Jews.

And then there’s the issue of violence. As the old journalism adage goes, “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t read.” My experiences with the publishing industry suggest that this holds as true now as ever.

In this post, the first of a three-part series, I’ll talk about what it means to be a woman in journalism and publishing.

***

I should have known that I was battling gender bias the moment my agent asked me if I could turn my original draft—a journalistic, semi-academic, discussion of non-Jewish, non-Palestinian “others”  and their place in Israel—into “Eat Pray Love meets migrant workers.”

Yes, memoir was big at the time. But can you imagine an agent asking a male journalist to turn his investigative work into something less deliberate? Can you imagine a male journalist being urged to write about how “you bumped into this person who introduced me to that person”?

And doesn’t the term “male journalist” sound funny? That’s because we’re not used to hearing it. Male journalists are the norm and we don’t bother describing norms. We only describe the exception to the rule. Articles exclaiming how far “female journalists” have come or the “Unique advantage of ‘female war reporters” actually suggest that we haven’t come that far… otherwise, participating in our profession would be unremarkable, so unremarkable it wouldn’t need to be discussed in an article.

That’s not to say that my agent is to blame. He’s  just a salesman—he’s a conduit for and reflection of market forces. And when it comes to publishing, women are relegated to particular corners of the industry.

Writing in The Washington Post in 2009, my former professor Julianna Baggott points out:

“This fall, Publishers Weekly named the top 100 books of 2009. How many female writers were in the top 10? Zero. How many on the entire list? Twenty-nine.

…I could understand Publishers Weekly’s phallocratic list if women were writing only a third of the books published or if women didn’t float the industry as book buyers or if the list were an anomaly. In fact, Publishers Weekly is in sync with Pulitzer Prize statistics. In the past 30 years, only 11 prizes have gone to women. Amazon recently announced its 100 best books of 2009 – in the top 10, there are two women. Top 20? Four. Poets & Writers shared a list of 50 of the most inspiring writers in the world this month; women made up only 36 percent.”

If you want a great analysis of the whys behind these numbers, read the rest of Baggott’s article. For some more current, but equally disappointing numbers in regards to inequality, read on.

A 2011 study by VIDA Women in the Literary Arts found that a majority of the books reviewed in 2010 in The Atlantic, The Boston Review, Harpers, Granta, The London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New Republic (to name a few) were written by men. And guess what? The reviewers themselves were also men.

Ruth Franklin of The New Republic gets to the bottom of things: publishing houses release more books written by men.

“Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.”

Surprisingly, Franklin found that the so-called left-wing presses didn’t fare any better than the big publishers.

And then, of course, when women do manage to get their books out there, they face literary ghettoization.

***

Of course, there are editors who would call this a “rant.” That’s what one male editor called an op-ed of mine that later got published elsewhere (by a female editor, mind you). Can you imagine an editor calling a man’s article a “rant”? No, it would be “an impassioned argument.”

There’s more. About four years ago, the (female) deputy foreign editor of a Very Famous Media Outlet thought my pitch about migrants in Israel was great. But, she said, I needed to check with the Jerusalem-based bureau chief, a man who promptly shot down the story. A young journalist, eager to learn and grow, I asked him why.

“It’s not fresh enough,” he said.

Before I’d pitched, I’d done my research. His outlet had never published anything about migrants in Israel. I pointed this out to the bureau chief. His answer was still no.

Yet, foreign workers were suddenly fresh enough for that same bureau chief two years later when a male freelancer pitched him a near-identical story.

In the five years that I’ve been working as a journalist, I’ve also watched younger men with far less experience and fewer qualifications enter the profession and bound ahead. I’ve seen them bust into publications that I and other female colleagues can’t get the time of day from.  I’ve watched them get the encouragement and positive feedback that pushes them forward while the fine work of many women journalists goes overlooked.

Is this any surprise when, as the Guardian puts it “sexist stereotypes, humiliating photographs of women, and male bylines dominate the front pages of British newspapers”?

Reporting on research conducted by Women in Journalism, the Guardian states that more than three-quarters of front page articles are written by men. An analysis of these same stories found that over 80 percent of “those mentioned or quoted” were men.

***

I’m also to blame. I’ve internalized stereotypes about women. I, too, end declarative sentences with a question mark so I don’t sound too assertive and I find myself using what linguists call “hedges” (sort of, like, you know)—devices used more often my women than men.

I don’t self-promote or share my work like my male colleagues do for fear of being thought aggressive. When my agent asked me to make my book “Eat Pray Love meets migrant workers” I said “yes” even though all of my instincts and my heart said no. And, a few years ago, when I interviewed a “woman journalist” about her excellent non-fiction book, one of my first questions was whether or not she would write a memoir about her personal connection to the material.

Part two: a black and white conflict with no shades of gray

A version of this post first appeared in Souciant.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. In some respects not much has changed since the Bronte sisters were publishing their work under deliberately masculine-sounding pseudonyms, or Mary Ann Evans was writing as George Eliot. Now there is a trend amongst women writers to use initials instead of names as a way of hiding gender. In J.K. Rowling’s case, she was instructed by her publisher to use her initials rather than her full name to ensure that more boys bought her books. When I read that, I realised with a shock that when I see a book on the shelf with initials in place of a name, I do assume that it’s written by a man. Default.

      And I nearly spat out my tea when I read ‘Eat Pray Love meets migrant workers’. Why is women’s narrative non-fiction always supposed to include some sort of personal crisis in order to sell? I hope you continue to hold out against the glittering lure of these suggestions…

      Reply to Comment
    2. mischi

      This is a really great, important piece. I’ve noticed that, even on 972mag, pieces written by “male journalists” often garner far more attention, comments, shares, etc., than equally excellent pieces authored by “female journalists.” This, of course, is not unique to 972mag — a similar valorization of male-authored articles and books is a frequent occurrence in myriad other sites, as you point out. I’ve wondered about this phenomenon for some time, and so am glad to see at least some mention.

      Reply to Comment
    3. A man

      Both the NYT and Guardian bureau chiefs are women, and there are female reporters in Israel from across the foreign press. Also, go to any press conference or breaking news event and you’ll see tons of female reporters working for Israeli outlets. Furthermore, the two main anchors on Israeli news are women and female editors are everywhere in Israeli journalism.

      I don’t see a dearth of women in Israeli journalism, not in English or in Hebrew.

      Maybe the timing just wasn’t right for your book.

      Reply to Comment
    4. directrob

      “Eat Pray Love meets migrant workers” sounds like “Pride & Prejudice and zombies”. How can I buy a serious book with that title?

      Your conclusion that it does not sell because you are a women sounds premature to me. If I could read hebrew your name would be enough reason to pick the book up. Could it be that the subject is hard to sell. Would a book on this subject written by a man do any better?

      Anyway, if editors ignore articles/books because they are written by woman then something is very wrong.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Courage, eloquence, and truth, all in one place. I THANK you, with all my heart. Do let’s keep telling such truths, fearlessly.

      Reply to Comment
    6. I have to watch myself on this one, for I am a failed man. I do not claim my failure was due to women. But I have always been on the outside looking in, even though I am a white American male.

      So all I will do is suggest something positive about your place in the world and your book topic: knowing what it is to be marginalized, you knew how to navigate the world of immigrants. The same event or data may have implications for you that many others cannot readily see. Certainly the treatment of African immigrants in your land is a new cut into Israeli social politics, and I suspect it is one most want to deny. I think you are correct that what happens to this group has implications throughout much Israeli law and does indeed act as a new mirror on how Palestinians are treated, both citizen and not.

      But “phalocratic”? Must I now bear this original sin as by sun moves west? I have found that, when people win, original sin is sexless. Although I can only guess at the frustrations and difficulties you have and will face, there is something to the trite observation that what you have experienced as given you sight as well.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Lauren

      Good on you for writing this and putting it up front. Now, please tell me how I can read your book. Thanks.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Thanks Mya for this excellent article and your spot-on analysis about women in the literary field. Believe me, it is not just in publishing where women get short shrift.

      The entire uproar in October about my posting a video on my Facebook page, which then went to the Free Gaza TWITTER account (unknown to me) was orchestrated by men, from Ali Abunimah, who started the whole thing, to the men at Mondoweiss. If I had been a man, none of their comments would have been written or printed. But heaven forbid, there is a strong and opinionated non-Palestinian woman who founded and ran the voyages to Gaza who has actually made a difference.

      On the other hand, it was also men like Larry Derfner and Lenni Brenner and Gilad Atzmon who stood up for me and for Free Gaza.

      But, the saddest part of this attack against me was that no woman wrote and said, “I get it. I know exactly what happened and we all have made stupid posting mistakes like the one you made.”

      So there are lessons to be learned here. We women need to stick up for each other instead of letting men do the work for us, and we also need to be appreciative of the men who are in touch with their feminine selves who stick up for us as well. So I want you to know how much I appreciate your work on migrant workers and where can I buy the book?

      Reply to Comment
      • I did want to clarify the comment about women. Many women wrote to me privately and supported me. But, only the male journalists spoke out in public such as Ramzi Baroud and Jeff Blankfort.

        One brave women journalist, Alison Weir, who has also been accused of being anti-Semitic because of her stand against Israeli Apartheid, did put her name and her reputation on the line with a statement of support.

        However, it was men who started the witch hunt and men who continued it… a very sad commentary on the lives of activists.

        Reply to Comment
        • Larry Derfner came to your defense very forcefully (as he probably is in about everything he does) on 972. He did so publically, in his own name, not in an email.

          Reply to Comment
      • Rivkah

        Greta,
        I would have been offended by your post and completely lame response regardless of your gender. Same with Allison Weir and he anti-Jewish comments.

        The reason that no woman have come out and said “I get it. I know exactly what happened and we all have made stupid posting mistakes like the one you made.” is because others do not share your thinly veiled anti-Semitism and would not have posted a video like that anywhere.

        Your fiasco was completely of your own making, it has nothing to do with this article, leave Mya and the rest of us out of your paranoid delusions.

        Reply to Comment
    9. annie, i deleted your mean-spirited comment about my “inability” to publish. (in fact, despite the gender bias, i have published extensively. http://www.myaguarnieri.com/about/

      this post is about something specific–the glass ceiling that women in journalism and publishing face and the fact that i can’t get my book out there despite having a platform, having put a lot of work into it and having worked with a prominent agent.

      to “a man” who writes above that there are plenty of women journalists in israel/palestine… clearly. i’m one of them. and i am not saying that there are no women journalists out there. as i say in the article, there is gender bias in the industry…that doesn’t mean that no females are publishing; just because some of us women manage to publish doesn’t disprove the bias.

      Reply to Comment
    10. mischi: i totally agree with you.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Carl

      Mya I think you point about sexism in journalism is a fair one, but bemoaning the lack of a publishing deal in the same article makes a wide political point come across as a personal gripe. I don’t think it is but for the sake of clarity and effect, keep the two separate.

      My only complaint is ‘phallocratic’. If misogyny stems from genetics then you’ve just given 50% of the population a free pass.

      Reply to Comment
    12. berl

      yes, I would also leave personal experience out. Or at least not so self-centered. Link to ‘about section’ and other sentences were not necessary.
      As for the topic, there is a lot of truth in it. So I agree that the topic is very important.
      As for publications, to me are the academic ones (that can take 1 or 2 years) and not the journalistic ones (few hours or days) that make the difference.

      Reply to Comment
    13. there’s been a little confusion as to the status of my book, i think because i open this piece by saying that “my book isn’t selling.”

      that is, publishers aren’t buying my book… so, no, it’s not out…

      sorry. and to those of you who left comments/emailed/messaged me to ask where they can find the book: thanks for the support! and i hope that 2013 will see the book find a publishing house…

      best,
      mya

      Reply to Comment

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