Michele Weldon, OpEd Project Seminar Leader and Fellowship Leader, Weighs In

Are Boy Bylines Better Than Girl Bylines?

By Michele Weldon,  Huffington Post

Now I feel like a liar.

Twice a week for 10 weeks I gear up to deliver confidence-surging lectures about talent, curiosity, flexibility and intelligent athleticism being the keys to a great writing career. This spring I aim to truthfully inspire my Magazine Storytelling class of 14 women and two men at the Medill School of Journalism.

For nearly 17 years I have been telling all my undergraduate and graduate Northwestern University journalism students — thousands to this point — that they can sharpen their tools for creative ideas, narrative craft, multimedia and timely relevance to ensure they will always be employable as writers, journalists and content providers. I do not make gender exceptions.

Talent rises, I say, and I don’t mean it to be ironic. You will be noticed. Work hard, perform well and you will get to where you dream to be. It is not at all about who you know. It is about what you do. For the past several years, the more than 72 percent student female population at Medill appears to listen intently. At least I think they believe me.

And then the real world proves it isn’t so.

This week the American Society of Magazine Editors announced its illustrious National Magazine Awards 2012 finalists. The categories of reporting, feature writing, profile writing, essays and criticism, columns and commentary read like the Augusta National members directory.

No women allowed.

Not one woman nominated. Not one.

Aha! Perhaps it is a disproportionate roster of judging leaders tipping the imbalance. Not so: 11 women and 12 men comprise the band of 23 judge leaders including Pamela Maffei McCarthy, deputy editor of the New Yorker and Barbara O’Dair, executive editor of Reader’s Digest.

So I started counting the judges. Of 260 seasoned magazine journalists and consultants, 69 are women, and formidable professionals at that, including Susan Casey, editor-in-chief at O, The Oprah Magazine, Dora Somosi, director of photography at GQ, plus two female Medill faculty colleagues who also make the list.

Yes, women journalists were nominated in the news and documentary category along with feature photography. Women dominated personal services and public interest, what Good magazine editor Ann Friedman calls “service” writing.” This the stuff of how-tos, the problem-solving approach to women’s issues, what has long been called the pink ghetto of journalism, or what I call the 105 ways to better orgasm, the top 10 cures to dry, frizzy hair and 50 ways to transform disrespectful children and your backyard at the same time.

In a reaction to the awards announcement, Mother Jones, which boasts perfect byline equity in a recent issue of 41 male bylines and 41 male bylines, ran an online interview with Erin Belieu of VIDA. An organization with the subtitle Women in the Literary Arts, VIDA commits an annual byline count for several noteworthy magazines from Harper’s to New York Review of Books.

“A friend of mine calls this kind of intellectual segregation as the ‘tits and nether bits’ ghetto, a place in which women only speak to other women. Meantime, men are allowed and encouraged to speak to whomever they want,” Belieu told Mother Jones.

In addition to the ASME awards count, in the VIDA roundup, it’s looking pretty tilted against the lady journos, the female authors who get their books reviewed as well as the female reviewers. At Harper’s, the overall count revealed content contributed by 22 percent female writers, compared to 78 percent men. At London Review of Books, the count for women writers is lower, at nearly 19 percent, with men contributing content 81 percent of the time.

Do we have to resort to using initials in our bylines so our gender is hidden in order to get published, lauded, hired or promoted?

Gender disparities are nothing new in journalism. Also released just this week, The American Society of News Editors’ Newsroom Census shows that the overall number of women employed as supervisors, copy editors, online producers, reporters and visual journalists remains at the 36.9 percent level of last year, and a return to the same percentage total as in 1999, when women were first counted separately.

The other ASNE news is that the percentage of women employed in key positions is down. The number of female supervisors, including editors, is down to 34.2 percent from 34.6 percent in 2011. This is a drop from the highest measured rate of 35.6 percent women supervisors in 2006. Women working as photographers, artists and videographers is down to 25.2 percent of the newsroom, compared to 26.3 percent last year. The percentage of women reporters and writers is down as well to 38 percent of the newsroom, the lowest percentage of employees in 13 years since the census began counting women.

But ASNE is not all bad news for women journalists this year. For the first time ever at its annual convention this week, a women-only roster populated The “Innovative Newsroom Leadership” panel. In a story written by my friend and Journalism and Women Symposium colleague Alicia Shepard, she writes the panel was organized by Wanda Cash of the University of Texas’ journalism school; the panel hosted Jill Abramson, editor of the New York Times; Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post; Kathleen Carroll, AP executive editor; Donna Byrd, publisher of of TheRoot.com; and Chrystia Freeland, editor of Thomson Reuters Digital. Gwen Ifill of Washington Week and PBS NewsHour moderated.

So women should stop the whining and belly-aching. What’s the big deal? So what that fewer women write the stories? So what that fewer women get the awards? So what that fewer women supervise the collection of news and the dissemination of information to the public?

Journalism is supposed to be objective. A reporter is a reporter is a reporter.

Not so.

Whoever tells the story writes history. Whoever narrates the story gets to frame it her way. These are cornerstone beliefs at The OpEd Project, where I have been working as a Public Voices Fellowship Leader and seminar co-leader for the past year, in addition to my day job as an assistant professor of journalism at Medill. OEP teams have helped faculty at Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Fordham — and next year at Northwestern — universities to more effectively join the global conversation and contribute to major news outlets, adding to the diversity of voice in public opinion. And to change the odds of who writes the story.

The byline count of commentary, opinion essays and editorials tells a story of crucial imbalance.

According to OpEd, for opinion and editorial pieces published by contributing writers, 17 percent were written by women and 83 percent by men in the New York Times for the week of March 21-27 of this year. Across the country at the Los Angeles Times, for the same week, the opinion pieces were written by 35 percent men and 65 percent women.

Even Wikipedia is lopsided. In 2011, Wikipedia self-reported that only 13 percent of its contributors were female. In response, Wikimedia is pushing to have 25 percent female contributors in the next three years. An initiative with a polarizing title, WikiProject Feminism is attempting to at least archive some of the female brilliance on the X chromosome side of the ideological hemisphere. To that end, a gender gap listserv is in its nascent stages.

The same week of the ASME awards and the ASNE census results, HBO aired a trailer for Newsroom, its Aaron-Sorkin drama debuting this summer starring Jeff Daniels as an anchorman on the precipice of career suicide. The opening scene is supposedly held at Medill in the McCormick Tribune Forum; the Medill sign is in the background and it is outfitted as a Crain’s Lecture. This is supposed to be the same auditorium where for years I have held my larger lectures.

But Sorkin has it all wrong, or at least the casting director does. The campus audience appears mostly male. The first question from the audience is from a male student. The second from a young woman whom Daniels derides as “sorority girl.” The journalism lectures at my university are attended by mostly women. Most everyone who sits in that auditorium is female.

In the brief tantalizing trailer, Jane Fonda appears as the anchorman’s boss. While it is supposed to mimic the CNN operation, chances are — as the ASNE census shows– who would be the boss at that media outlet would not be Jane or any woman, but someone who looks more like her ex-husband, Ted Turner.

And while it’s not at all how I want it to be, and not at all what I want to tell my students, it is after all the truth.

Click here to read full article. Share your thoughts on Twitter (@theopedproject) or on  The OpEd Project’s Facebook page.

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