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From Issue #10 February 14, 2013

Gender Binder

The Magazine has published thirty-six men and six women so far.

By Glenn Fleishman Twitter icon 

This cheesy stock photo depicting “diversity” still shows a pro-male bias: none of the womens’ hands are in focus. All of the in-focus hands are male.

A pattern emerged quite early among The Magazine’s contributors. Our fearless leader, Marco Arment, reached out to the professional writers and thoughtful developers he knew best to fill early issues before we accepted outside pitches. These were nearly all men.

In the first five issues, Gina Trapani was the sole woman with a byline. In the next five issues, including this one, only five more women appeared; we have included articles by Serenity Caldwell and Alison Hallett twice in that span. Overall, that is six women to 36 men, with some of the men appearing multiple times.

Marco, as an engineer and programmer, has worked more often with men than women, but I’ve worked in design and publishing, in which the ratio is far more equal. We both embrace the notion of equality in our personal and professional lives.

So what the hell is wrong with us?

Selection bias

A couple of issues ago, we ran Jamelle Bouie’s article “And Read All Over.” Jamelle picked apart the reasons why tech publications don’t widely employ or use freelancers who are people of color, and particularly blacks and Latinos. We liked this article because he made a determined effort to uncover reasons other than overt or covert bigotry. (After he posted it on his blog a few days ago, various bits of furor arose, including a notable exchange with Jason Calacanis; Atlantic Wire summed it up.)1

Let us not pretend that racism and ethnic hatred don’t still exist, whether sub rosa or not. But what Jamelle explicated is that people tend to hire people they know. If you start with a group of white men, the odds are that they will hire other white men. It is not necessarily a conspiracy nor does it have to be an intentionally exclusionary effort.

Further, the tools that bring in people outside of circles of collegiality and friendship, like internships (unpaid or low-paying), lack appeal to minorities who may lack the funds to learn the ropes and get an in. Some families may heavily discourage (and thus not provide support and funds for) such internships in favor of a more aggressive pursuit of degrees or permanent employment.2

But these particular issues apply only in part to women. As a whole, women eagerly participate in internships. A 2009 report found that in surveying about 28,000 college undergraduates, 70% of those who had taken internships were women. Some tech publications have a decent percentage of female staff and contributors, and several are led by women or have women in the most senior editor or publisher positions.

Even still, tech magazines and editorial sites significantly underrepresent women given the roughly 50-50 gender split in the United States. (The notable exception is Mashable, where female staffers outnumber men.)

This correlates with the general underrepresentation of women in computer science and engineering courses. While 56% of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States are earned by women, they received in the 2010–2011 academic year only 12% of computer science and computer engineering degrees and 17.5% of information science degrees. Worse, colleges awarded 37% of computer science bachelor’s degrees to women in 1984, but 27% in 1998. It’s an alarming trend. Even in a single year, there was a significant decline in CS degrees: from 14% in 2009–2010 to 12% in 2010–2011.

Technology writers often lack any computer-science degree or formal background, of course, but this broader context is useful, as it’s an objective measure of the failures of providing women the right opportunities in technical studies, and this relates to the industry that we cover.

This is actually from Microsoft’s Careers Diversity page.

A shift in our focus

What does this have to do with The Magazine’s selection bias toward men? Perhaps I want to distract you by suggesting that degrees in subjects related to technology prove that there’s a smaller pool of women technology writers. Perhaps I’m trying to highlight a greater disparity and a worrying shift in careers open to women that the degree figures represent.

But I don’t think that applies to us. We’ve shifted The Magazine’s focus from its launch as a publication for “geeks like us” — which could imply “geeks like white males Glenn and Marco, and like our predominantly white male geek contributors” — to “a variety magazine for geeks and curious people.” It’s more inclusive and broader, but there could be some lag time as that change catches up to awareness. The term geek often implies man by the reverse-exclusive principle that only men would self-identify as geeks. But that seems to be eroding, especially among younger people.

We started out more technical and computer-oriented than we have become. We have shifted from including technology in every story to the looser notion of stories that have a thread that connects them to tech or that have the right resonance for our readers, who we believe (and feedback indicates) tend to be a sophisticated bunch.3

Many of our published and currently assigned writers have a tech writing background, although that’s gradually shifting and will shift more rapidly in coming weeks to a mix of general-interest, science/medical, and technology writers. The general pool of freelance writers, in my experience, has no noticeable outlandish imbalance, even though one might exist.

Perhaps it is a question of material. You can see the extremes in the last few issues. In Issue #7, we featured Chris Higgins’s wonderful look at competitive Tetris: very geeky stuff, but told through the lens of two men who had become friends through their mutual obsessive interest in mastering the game. Issue #8 sported geeky topics like Erin McKean on winning arguments about word use, Nathan Barham on mobile devices used in his marching band, and Dan Moren trying to explain his persistent love for manual transmissions.

But also in Issue #8, Mark Siegal’s “Fits You to a T” seems to have no relationship to tech; in #9, Serenity Caldwell’s account of her childhood time in Nova Scotia and her relationship with her grandparents also had almost no bleeps and bloops in it (FaceTime has a fleeting cameo). As an editor, I don’t want to play favorites with writers or works, because we only publish articles that we think are worth sharing. Those two, however, in the particular wheelhouse of capturing the ache of memory and regret, are downright perfect. Curious people want to know about how other people live and feel, and these two articles untangle complicated sets of emotions rooted to a time and place. This correlates to the kind of insight we think you want and that we absolutely want to provide.

That still doesn’t answer the question, though, does it?

Speak now or hold your peace

My closest experience before The Magazine with being constantly pitched came when I helped plan several tech conferences with the legendary and dearly departed Thunder Lizard Productions in the late 1990s. The two owners were men; the staff mostly women. We strove to have a balance onstage between female and male speakers that was at least 30-70 or 40-60 because the fields of the conferences (design, advertising, and marketing) had decent gender parity among those working in them.

There is a long-running battle about whether conference planners (as well as publication editors, school admissions directors, and so many other people) should be blind to gender, race, and ethnicity — and perhaps disabilities and other factors — or whether those should be elements to consider in assembling a body of people. That could be a speaker roster, a masthead, a student body, or a presidential cabinet.

The question has two sides: Are we excluding qualified people because they don’t match a body, skin, place or origin, or ability configuration? And are we including other qualified people because they do? The argument I’ve read during a recent battle about speaker line-ups at technology events has been that technology has no bias: A white male and a black female would both ostensibly present the precise technical details necessary for an audience looking to understand an issue.

That is, of course, bullshit. No two people, even with the same background, present information, much less subjective experience, in the same fashion. Unless you are completely unaware of the audience and are reading monotonally from a script, every person modifies his or her presentation in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to the sense of the crowd. The crowd thus captures and interprets the information differently. This is true among genders, place of origin (an Indian programmer versus a Canadian one), and other cultural and class markers.

And one cannot audition speakers, at least, without a subconscious awareness of their characteristics; there’s no way to do that blind. In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began putting up a screen during musician auditions so that the hiring artists could hear but not see the musicians. Women rose from occupying 5% of orchestra positions in 1970 to 25% in 1996, as described in a 1997 academic paper that teases out how much the screen — versus changes in society — played a role. (That number has since risen to 35% in America.)

In writing, one can’t see or hear the person, but it would be equally ridiculous to say a writer’s voice doesn’t come through in the prose, unless it’s the driest of news reporting, which we don’t run. Every voice in prose comes through differently, and you feel those differences (even if you can’t identify gender or other factors) with or without a byline.

But you might note my misdirection here, too. At the outset of this section, I mentioned that we had tried to have at least 30% of our speakers be women. Why was that so hard?

Who pitches

When I planned conferences, we started with an outline of what we wanted for sessions, then tried to find people to match those topics. But we also got unsolicited proposals for sessions. Nearly universally, pitches for sessions came from men; quite a lot of the time, we had to talk women into speaking at our events, even though they had the same kind of background and qualifications as the men who pitched us.

Some male speakers called us, emailed us, sent us packages of information, or had (at least in one case) an assistant call repeatedly. I don’t recall a single woman doing that. We typically, but not always, reached out to female speakers, sometimes multiple times.

As a 20-something back then and a feminist since childhood, I found this odd. Given the same competence and knowledge, aren’t men and women exactly equal? In ability, yes, but not in approach, at least in my experience with hundreds of potential and hired speakers. There’s a joke that men are better at rejection because they experience it so often when attempting to pick up women.4 But in practice, men put themselves out, even when unqualified and unprepared to speak knowledgeably in front of several hundred people about the topic they suggested; women rarely did, and if they did, they were eminently qualified.

We’re seeing precisely the same pattern at The Magazine. So far, we have rarely assigned writing. Instead, we rely on a combination of writers pitching us and reaching out to people we know and asking them to come up with ideas. Over time, we will likely assign more (at least in a general area, if not a specific feature), but listening to pitches drives the eclecticism that we are looking for.

For whatever reason — perhaps the original tone we set with the line-up of writers or our tagline or even because we’re both male — women rarely send us submissions. Somewhat more than 90% of all “cold-call” pitches we receive through email or via the Web submission form on our main page are from men. You heard that right.

I put out the query on Twitter several days ago: “Writers of a female gender: why aren’t you pitching me articles at @TheMagazineApp?” I received an array of interesting responses as well as emails. Two-time contributor Alison Hallett, whose day job is as the arts and culture editor at the weekly Portland Mercury, says my experience matches what she sees in cultivating writers.

Several women noted that they thought writing for The Magazine was invitation only, which it was pre-launch when Marco asked people he knew to contribute. However, we’ve had hundreds of pitches since, leading me to wonder why women felt it was an exclusive club and men did not. A few female colleagues noted that the early masthead did set the tone: our publication was written by and for men from an exclusive club of male writers. Heather Gold said that our pitch process, a form linked at the bottom of our home page, looked like a black hole: “feels like it won’t be read though I know not true.” (We’ve since added a lengthy essay about pitching us with more specifics on what we want and how we respond.)

Speculation

Men are also vastly more likely to send in something they wrote “on spec,” short for “on speculation.” It’s unfortunately common, and was more so in the past, for publications to solicit “spec work” before it was assigned. I don’t ask for this at The Magazine, as I find it distasteful to ask a writer to produce work tailored to my needs that we may or may not publish. (I do ask for a clear sense of the core of the story, its hook, and its progression, as well as writing samples.)

Cold calls from women writers generally come from direct contact. I get a question via Twitter or an email message. From that exchange, I have many times encouraged a full pitch that goes into our tracking system. That’s more of a “warm” pitch: The ice has been broken, and the writer encouraged.

Jen Miller, who both pitched us through a form and is working on a feature for an upcoming issue, said in email (and gave me permission to quote her):

It might be a gender thing in the same way that men make more risks in battle or on the trading floor. I don’t pitch startups because I don’t want to get burned. I vetted you guys with two writers before I pitched, which is the only reason I broke the rule.

I also found an odd trend that I identified in myself. Months ago, after Marco and I had worked together on a few issues, I started emailing potential writers: friends, acquaintances, Twitter buddies, and people whose work I admired and who were a fit. After sending a number of these, I realized that 9 out of 10 were to women. These were voices that were missing from The Magazine and that I wasn’t getting in the first waves of pitches: voices both as individuals who I’d read before and as a kind of approach to material that was missing.

Months later, this still happens. To put it bluntly, I am sometimes batting away men because so many pitches come in, and inviting women because we are at times clearly lacking their perspective and their stories.

Blame the player or the game?

This may sound like I am blaming an entire gender for not being aggressive or for implicitly demanding to be cultivated and included. I’m not. We created the space in which we accept pitches, and that space comes with a host of unstated assumptions that, if we fail to examine them, seem reasonable to us. Under that logic, anyone who doesn’t conform to those expectations would be asking for special treatment.

Any objective reader of this essay would have to conclude there must be a bias that leads to more men attempting to write for us, even if we can’t tease out precisely what that bias is. Further, our upcoming slate of articles already turned in and assigned out shows the benefits of having multiple methods of soliciting articles. We have features from Kuwait, Pakistan, and England, not to mention an ever more even gender balance.

The solution to a selection process that results in provably bad and exclusionary outcomes isn’t to double down and defend it. It’s to analyze, modify, test, and adapt.


  1. As a side note, we contract with writers, photographers, and illustrators for two kinds of rights. Non-exclusive rights allow us to use their material forever. But for exclusive rights, we ask for 30 days following publication. At that time, they can resell, license, post on their blog, or give away their work. 

  2. Internships have changed in the last few years, however, as the Obama administration has enforced and strengthened rules that disallow unpaid and low-wage interns from performing the routine work of employees. Interns must get a distinct educational benefit, and employers have been cited and fined. 

  3. I’m not trying to lay it on thick. Based on email and Twitter, our readers have long experience with computers and the Internet, and we tend to avoid handholding you through concepts and directions that we know you already likely know. You also all own at least one iOS 6 device and subscribe to a recurring-fee publication. That’s how smart you are. 

  4. There’s a sexual orientation bias inherent in that joke, as well as a bias that women never try to pick up men, and the sexist bias that women exist to be picked up by men. 

Glenn Fleishman is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, and contributes reguarly to the Economist, Boing Boing, TidBITS, and Macworld. The father of two, Glenn won two episodes of Jeopardy! in 2012, and he won't let you forget it.

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