Re: women getting their shit together. A discussion.

For the most part, I enjoy my experiences in the Journalism school. Sure, there are highs and lows, and by that, I mean A LOT of lows (ie stress, lack of sleep, forgetting to eat, compensating by stress-eating, repeat).

One of the great things of attending a widely recognized journalism institution is the opportunity to bring in great guest speakers from the field to talk about their craft. After all, one of the best ways to learn journalism is to see what others are doing out there too.

So when I saw a poster for the March 4 “Writing Powerful Narratives” conference, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, for schedule conflict reasons, I was unable to attend. The next day, it seemed that the attendees had learned much more than a lesson in craft; they had, intentionally or not, learned how journalism is a gendered institution biased toward men. This may or may not actually come as a shock to you (I’ve been noticing it more and more recently because of this class, but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow), but it’s a discussion worth having considering more than half of the journalism school is populated by female writers, reporters, editors, designers, teachers and innovators.

The writing conference was centered around Mark Sager’s new book “New Wave: America’s Next Generation of Great Literary Journalists.” The concept of the book was to profile 19 of the best literary journalists under 40. For the non-journalism folks here, literary journalism is also called narrative, non-fiction or creative journalism. It’s those stories that go beyond the general who-what-where-when-why news brief and is more of a creative writing piece that is anchored by completely factual events.

Anyway, so the 19 best narrative journalists under 40. That’s great. That means that the value of literary journalism (specifically the kind of work I enjoy most) is still out there and being recognized and might still be around by the time I get out into the real world.

But, take a look at the table of contents of the contributing writers and there’s something very distinct about the names listed: of the 20 chosen writers, only three are female.

I later learned that at the conference, none of the three women who were included in the book actually attended the session. One was on assignment, one had just given birth and was still nursing her newborn, and the last had just experienced a miscarriage and was unable to make it for health reasons.

The gender disparity was brought up by several of my female peers during the conference, and a few of them are in my intermediate writing class with Jacqui Banaszynski. Pulitzer Prize-winning, Knight chair-having, fabulous writing coach Jacqui Banaszynski. When Tuesday afternoon rolled around, the discussion still wasn’t settled. So naturally, we took the first 20 minutes of our two and a half hour class to talk about the issue.

When you go down the list again, you’ll notice that a lot of the big names that publish the kind of great literary journalism we strive for are magazines like Sports Illustrated, Esquire, GQ. These are all men’s magazines, and the boy’s club generally picks team members who are also male.

One of my peers said that she brought this up to the panel during the conference, to which someone essentially responded that women weren’t getting their names and craft out there because they needed to “get their shit together.”

What the speaker fails to realize is that it’s not about women somehow fixing their own problems to excel in a writing career, but perhaps that some of that problem lies in the institution of journalism and writing itself.

First, like Cherlin notes in his article about marriage in the 21st century, the timeline of men and women achieving status in their careers is different. By limiting the scope of this project to the 19 best literary journalists under 40, you’re disregarding the women who have decided to forego an early, demanding career in lieue of starting and raising a family. There are plenty of female writers who have demonstrated their literary prowess beyond the age of 40, when they as primary childcare providers are able to reinvest in their careers.

Second, many men’s magazines are able to invest in long-form projects because of their counterparts. It’s long been noted that women are the pursestrings of America, that they are the primary consumers whom advertisers are most eager to please. So these women’s magazines that sell beauty and sex and issues then are able to subsidize the men’s magazines that are owned by the same publisher, and they in turn can afford more time and space within their publications to do longer stories about larger issues. So maybe it’s not the women who need to get their shit together, but the industry’s value of quality reporting across the board.

When the longer, more quality stories are saved for men’s magazines, these articles will then be reported by male writers because as of right now, they’re the ones hired on by the magazines. This might be for several reasons, including the idea that only men can write for an audience of men (bullshit), or because they are more available to do these risky stories and not be tied to family or childcare commitments like married women might be.

There are definitely multiple reasons to see why the gender disparity among journalism students and journalism professionals is so vast. Where to begin? I can’t be too sure. It’s an interesting discussion at the very least.


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