March 20th, 2013


Gender Bias in Publishing Redux

Most of this is a comment in response to the gender ratios for appearance in major literary publications posted earlier this month at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

I am the editor of Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and the poetry editor for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. In Mobius, I publish approximately twice as many male contributors as female (judging by author name); in Star*Line, about three times as many men as women. For both, I receive twice as many submissions from men as from women.

I had calculated the ratios for Mobius a couple of years ago, on the occasion of yet another discussion of gender bias in publishing. It pleased me that I was publishing work in the same gender ratio as the submissions, because I felt that it supported: a) that the quality of work from both genders was equivalent; and b) that I was not exhibiting a gender bias. (Of course, it could also be plausibly inferred that: a] one gender's work is far superior to the other; and b] I do have a strong gender bias in the other direction.)

I should be less pleased to find that I am currently accepting a higher proportion of work from men for Star*Line compared to the submissions ratio. However, I don't consider myself to be favoring men; I consider myself to be favoring good poetry; i.e., poetry that meets my standards and tastes. There are all sorts of potential explanations for the Star*Line gender discrepancy; one possible explanation is that because a number of high-profile journals exist withing the speculative poetry genre that specifically promote women's issues and gender issues, female poets are submitting to those venues preferentially. (I welcome discussion regarding this phenomenon.)

A characteristic of male submitters: they form a higher percentage of the submissions because they submit more frequently than women—or, at least, are more frequently repeat submitters to the same venues. Persistence sometimes does pay; if a poet's work is close to publishable quality and multiple submissions are sent, there is a much greater likelihood of one piece appealing to an editor.

Politically, I support affirmative action. However, I do not believe that the concept is appropriately applied to publication. A student or employee lacking skills or experience because of societal inequities can be brought up to speed; a poem, once published, is not generally alterable (and while my editing is hands-on, I have no intention of rewriting inadequate or unsuitable submissions in a manner that exceeds the abilities of the poets themselves).

Based on my submissions statistics, which I believe to be the norm, I think the real issue is not what's being published. The important question raised is: why are women not submitting in the same numbers as men? Superficial interpretation of statistics like those on the VIDA site further discourage women from submitting. The statistics that need to be stressed are not the publication or staff ratios, but whether there is any difference between the submissions ratio and the acceptance ratio—and then, if there is a difference, to talk about why it exists. The most obvious way for women to get published more is to submit more. And I suspect that the same holds true for applicants to review and editorial positions.

As an editor, I welcome submissions from both genders to Star*Line and Mobius. At present, I publish as many poems as I can find that I like; if I begin to get more poems I like than I can publish, I will raise my standards. I will not change my acceptance policies, which are based solely on my own tastes and on suitability for the journal in question.

As a poet and writer, I can inform you that I am female—while my gender may not be immediately inferred from my byline, I take no extraordinary measures to conceal it. Also that, for the last several years, the acceptance rate for my poetry submissions has averaged over 50%—in many cases from paying markets. I have hundreds of published poems, have won numerous awards for my writing, and have had four chapbooks published by independent presses. No MFA; I got where I am by industriously reading, writing, performing and attending performances, and submitting—in that order of importance. I'm not trying to brag; I am saying, ladies, that this is doable. Nor do I submit, as a rule, to venues that claim to consider submissions from women preferentially—that practice, I believe, actively denigrates female writers when it is undertaken for the purported purpose of rectifying gender bias. From where I see it, the problem is that of motivating female writers to submit more, to be more persistent—and that involves taking risks.