The 2016 Vida count has been released and it demonstrates yet again that the media can’t seem to locate enough female writers. Every year Vida – the New York-based organisation for Women in Literary Arts – counts the writers featured in dozens of literary journals and periodicals across the world, and finds that the authors represented, and the critics who are evaluating those authors, are consistently about two thirds men. For the second year, the survey also looks into “intersectional” data, and analyses factors such as ethnicity, sexuality and disability, as well.
Once again, the London Review of Books “has the worst gender disparity”, with women representing only 18% of reviewers and 26% of authors reviewed. The LRB’s figures have remained more or less consistent since the first Vida count in 2010, despite the publication telling the author Kathryn Heyman in 2013: “… there’s no question that despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we’ve made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful. We’ll continue to try – the issue is on our minds constantly.”
Other publications have done somewhat better. The New York Times Book Review has made consistent progress towards parity since the survey began, with reviewers currently evenly split, and authors reviewed at 44% women. Granta published more women than men for the first time since 2010, with 38 female bylines to 37 male. And in the Times Literary Supplement women wrote 38% of reviews but were the authors of only 29% of the books reviewed.
Vida’s intersectional results show relatively few writers of colour are working at literary journals – but the small sample sizes only highlight some of the difficulties in drawing accurate conclusions from self-reported surveys. For instance, the survey seems to show that 56% of contributors to Granta have a disability – but the data shows that only nine people answered one particular question about disabilities, with five of them reporting having “one or more disabilities or impairments”. And in a different question – “Do you identify as a person with a disability, only one person (11%) answered “yes”, one “no”, and one chose “I am unsure”; the other six (67%) did not respond. To the question “what is your sexual identity?”, three Granta contributors answered “straight/heterosexual”, one person “lesbian”, one “pansexual”, one “a sexuality not listed”, one did not respond and one ticked “multiple options”. Meanwhile, in the category described as “writers of colour”, two contributors to the London-based Times Literary Supplement identified themselves as “indigenous”. But indigenous to where? (Vida did not respond to the Guardian’s questions about the methodology, but does acknowledge: “The Vida Count is a work-in-progress and is heavily reliant on self-identification. We are learning, and we are listening.”)
“Now we are a year into ‘Making America Great Again’ and can see how these implied values are playing out”, wrote Vida in a statement, going on to describe “an unabashed war on women, alongside the systemic erasure of non-binary and trans people”. The organisation sees its role as “[shining] a light, exposing publishers’ biased publication rates so that discrimination might be more than just a feeling, so that writers, educators, and consumers might hold those publishers accountable for their omissions”, and hopes that this annual exposure will push publications to become more representative. Perhaps by the time the 2017 survey is reported, that distressing “proportion of women” will be less stubborn.