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I love statistics. So when Tim Hanley started posting his "Women in Comics" statistical analyses of DC and Marvel comics each month, I was fascinated…and curious. Tim's statistics lumped in all of the titles produced by each company each month. I wondered how the numbers would look if they were focused on each company's core products. I'm not familiar enough with Marvel to identify their core titles, but DC is easy: they put the vast majority of their marketing clout into, and receive the vast majority of their sales from "The New 52". I wrote to Tim and he very kindly sent me his raw data, which I then refined by removing non-New 52 titles like Scooby Doo, Ame-Comi Girls and Arrow.
The results were interesting.
Breakdown of creative staff working on The New 52 by gender, January through June, 2013.
The number of female writing credits on The New 52 has increased slightly of late, even making it up to 10% in May of this year. That's still awfully low – just one women for every ten writers. In most occupations the minimum is at least 17% women (which is also really low, just not as low as DC!) But it's heartening to see that the number is trending upward, even if painfully slowly. I just wish I could say the same for the rest of the creative staff.
There were no female letterers at all during the entire period. None. Additionally, the number of female pencillers and inkers working at DC is ridiculously low. In June, for example, out of over 120 credits for penciling and inking, ZERO of them were women. Nor is this an anomaly. In January, a five-Wednesday month with more than the usual number of titles, there were zero female pencillers and only one female inker.
I inquired about this at DC's "Superman: The New 52 Era" panel at San Diego Comic-Con this year. (I would have liked to ask about it at the "New 52" panel, but it ran long and there was no time for questions. However, there was enough crossover between the panelists and titles that I felt the Superman panel was still an appropriate place to ask.) "Why," I asked the panelists about my findings, "do you think this is?"
Jim Lee gave me a typically diplomatic answer, suggesting that there had been fewer female comic fans in the past and that was starting to change, as well as stating that DC doesn't care about gender, only about talent, and that it doesn't matter what someone's gender is – if they have the skill, DC will hire them. He also downplayed the fact that there had been no female pencillers or inkers at all in June, since the numbers will tend to fluctuate from month to month (a pretty weak argument, given the numbers for the rest of the months surveyed).
I thanked Jim, once again impressed by his smooth diplomacy (seriously, he could probably work for the government as a liaison to some war-torn country if he ever wanted to give up comics), and sat down.
I am left wondering, however, if DC actually wants to change.
The simple fact is, if you continue doing things the way you've always done them, you're going to get the same results you've always had. It is possible, however, to change the way a company does business and, in doing so, change huge gender imbalances in that company's publications, as the story of Tin House demonstrates.
What is Tin House? Tin House is an American literary journal. Literary magazines generally publish short stories, essays, poetry, book reviews and literary criticism. Several years ago, a grass-roots organization called VIDA was established. Every year, VIDA counts the number of books and authors reviewed and published by these publications and calculates how many of them are by women. The numbers are interesting, illuminating – and often depressing.
In 2012, for example, Harpers, one of the most prominent literary magazines, had 3 female book reviewers and 28 male book reviewers – about 90 percent men to 10 percent women. They reviewed works by 11 females and 54 males, and a count of their bylines showed 17 women and 76 men – both ratios of about one woman to every five men. These imbalances are not unique to Harpers, but exist across the industry, especially in well-known journals such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and New Republic. Furthermore, these ratios haven't shown improvement in the past several years, despite editorial promises after the first couple of VIDA counts that they "could and should do better".
The ratios haven't changed, that is, except for a handful of publications like Tin House.
What made Tin House different? Says Rob Spillman, founder and editor of Tin House, "It really isn’t rocket science. For us, the VIDA count was a spur, a call to action. Our staff is 50/50 male-female, and we thought we were gender blind. However, the numbers didn’t bear this out."
At this point, Spillman and his company could have done what so many others have done: made vague promises to do better, then thrown up their hands the following year when nothing changed and claimed that it wasn't their fault because they just didn't get enough submissions from women.
Instead, Spillman and his staff thoroughly analyzed their internal submission numbers and "…found that the unsolicited numbers are evenly split, while the solicited (agented, previous contributors, etc.) were 67/33 male to female. We found that women contributors and women we rejected with solicitations to resubmit were five times less likely to submit than their male counterparts."
Now, there are a lot of reasons why these imbalances might exist. In this context, however, it doesn't really matter why women were less likely to resubmit. Once Spillman and Tin House identified where the imbalance in their numbers was coming from, they set about changing the way they did things. What did they do?
"We basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway, and at the same time made a concerted effort to re-ask women to contribute."
What was the result of this drastic change? An almost 50/50 split between male and female bylines, book reviewers, and authors reviewed overall.
But wait, isn't this sexist? Isn't soliciting only women inherently sexist?
The answer to that depends on a couple of factors. First one must consider whether the process or the result is more important. By changing their proc
ess, Tin House ended up with far more equitable results. They did not exclude any men's submissions based on their gender, but they did make more of an effort to invite women to participate.
More important, however, is the idea that perhaps the existing process by which one gets published is inherently biased toward men. Consider: Harper's Magazine launched in 1850. Their entire structure of how articles are submitted, reviewed, and solicited, was put into place over 160 years ago. It was, at the time, created by men, for men, and featured men. It's not surprising, when you think about it, that the process itself would be more comfortable for men, since that's who it was designed by and for. If women had been the ones to establish the magazine, the process for submission, review and solicitation of articles might be entirely different.
Even setting aside possible sexism by editors whereby women's submissions are dismissed as "chick-lit" or simply receive less attention and consideration than those of their male counterparts, if the process itself is easier, more comfortable, and more streamlined for men, then it makes sense that there would be a significant gender imbalance at most literary magazines – as, in fact, there is.
The solution, as Tin House discovered, is to change the process. I doubt that Tin House will retain their current model if it becomes imbalanced in other ways. I am certain that they will continue to evolve and re-invent their corporate culture and methods in order to produce a product which is both balanced and of high quality.
Speaking of quality, did the quality suffer when Tin House changed their process to target women? Did doing so cause women who were undeserving to be included in their magazine, causing the overall quality of the magazine to go down?
The short answer is "no". As one analysis put it, "…the quality of the magazine remained as high as ever; the publication received about the same number of nominations for Best American Short Stories, O. Henry awards, and the Pushcart Prize." If anything, I would suggest that changing their process to include more women probably caused their overall quality to go up, simply because their pool of writers actually became larger with the inclusion of more women, not smaller. Now they're publishing the best writers of all genders, not just the best writers of a single gender.
The take away from this is that, as the Amy King states on the VIDA website, "Improvements will happen with effort, not accidentally or by ignoring the glaring disparities."
If DC Comics truly wants to have a more balanced staff of creators, they can't simply continue to do the same thing they've always done and expect the situation to somehow become more equitable. If the process by which they hire new creators favors men – as the numbers strongly suggest it does – they need to change the process.
Does DC care enough about the shamefully large gender gap in their creative staff to make the effort to effect real change? Are they willing to do more than pay lip service to the issue? Are they ready to walk the walk, not just talk the talk?
Only time will tell.