This article was originally published by The Establishment, May 23, 2017.
Recently, I had a story accepted by the editor of a city paper. Since he hadn’t mentioned pay, I asked whether the publication compensates their contributors. He replied that no, they did not.
Then he said this: “Frankly, because of the mention of money, I will now not run [your article].”
And just like that, my piece was pulled.
We can’t prove, of course, that this editor wouldn’t have treated a male writer the same abusive way, but we can make an educated guess based on existing research that interactions like the one I experienced happen more often when the power dynamic is editor=male, writer=female. In an industry where men serve as gatekeepers, and women are routinely pigeonholed and devalued, it’s hard not to see my experience as emblematic of broader issues.
It’s hard not to surmise that it’s time for the publishing industry to confront some hard truths.
Like many women who work outside the home, I’ve experienced the trifecta of workplace discrimination throughout my career: unequal pay, sexual harassment, and sexist treatment. I recently made a conscious move to freelance work as a researcher and writer, mostly for the flexibility self-employment offers, but also in part to escape the sexist environments that dominate many workplaces. This choice is not unusual; one recent study found that the majority of full-time freelancers, 53%, are women—many of whom make this choice for the same reasons I did.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to learn that the freelance industry is no safe haven from discrimination.
One study from 2005 revealed a 42% pay gap between full-time male and female independent contractors, and a 35% gap between part-time independent contractors. More recent studies reveal things might be changing, though comprehensive research remains limited; a study from 2014 revealed that female freelancers were securing the majority of the gigs on the platform People Per Hour (58%), while earning up to 22% more per hour than their male counterparts. As for freelance writing specifically, that’s also been woefully understudied, but one Writer’s Union of Canada report revealed that female writers earned only 55% of what their male counterparts did.
As in other industries, some say that if women aren’t making as much as men, it must be their own fault — they have to be more assertive in asking for higher pay. In the world of freelance writing, where negotiating pay is a constant, the pressure to “lean in” and demand more is particularly pronounced.
While I’ve always known that putting the onus on women to ensure that they get paid fairly is hogwash, my recent experience with the city paper editor reminded me why this strategy is not only ineffective, but harmful. As writer Cheryl Strayed once put it, it’s not that there’s “a secret commission of readers and editors dedicated to the mission of keeping women writers down,” but “we live in a patriarchy, which means that everything we observe, desire, and consume is in some essential way informed by gender assumptions that privilege men.” As my own anecdote illustrates, women may be punished for asking for more, or for even any compensation at all.
There’s also the issue of what the industry does and doesn’t value, and how gender stereotyping plays into these judgements. Male writers are often favored for subject matters deemed “serious” (like crime, politics, and news), while women are often pigeonholed into writing about what’s been described as “pink topics” or the “four f’s”: fashion, family, food, and furniture. Women, and particularly mothers, are also often recruited to produce low-quality clickbait for content-farming mills, earning anywhere from $2 (yes, $2) to $25 per article.
As in many other industries, problems with inequity start at the top.
While women tend to dominate lower-ranking positions in publishing, it’s men who often occupy the top positions of power. Women represent just 35% of newspaper supervisors, for instance, and serve as top editors in just three of the nation’s 25 largest papers, eight of the 25 largest papers with circulations under 100,000, and three of the top 25 under 50,000. (The situation is even more dire for people of color; in one study, just 15% of participating organizations said at least one of their top three editors is a person of color.)
And — no surprise here — evidence indicates that the people making decisions about whose stories are worth publishing may favor stories about people like them. Studies in various industries have shown that men tend to favor hiring men (and women tend to favor hiring other women).
Solutions to these deeply ingrained problems are in some ways elusive — but there are some concrete changes the publishing industry can make to rid itself of gender inequality. Concerning compensation, studies have shown that transparent pay policies are effective in remedying pay inequities among women and people of color. All publications should include standard pay rates on their website or in their contributor guidelines. Transparent pay policies will benefit all writers and would go a long way in making fair pay a more easily realized norm in the publishing industry.
Publishers can also work to ensure more women and people of color can become decision-makers and occupy the top positions in the industry — although, it’s worth noting, women in positions of power is not a panacea. After the newspaper editor pulled my article, I forwarded the e-mail exchange to the editor-in-chief of the paper, a woman. She and I subsequently had a phone conversation in which I urged her to establish transparent pay policies and hold the editor (and all her staff) accountable for abusive behavior toward freelancers. She listened to my suggestions politely, but when I followed up with her for this article and asked if she had implemented any of my suggestions, all I got was silence. As of this writing, the paper’s website has not been updated with compensation policies of any sort.
So making more women editors-in-chiefs will not necessarily solve the problem of sexism in the publishing industry if those women do not value fairness and equality or are not willing or able to implement policies that reflect those values.
The problem at the root of all of this is that, like many industries, the publishing industry is composed of institutions that were built on capitalistic, patriarchal values that serve the dominant group (namely, white men) and exclude everyone else (women, people of color). Changing these institutions involves a reimagining of values and goals. We need to build an industry that recognizes the dignity and importance of writers’ work and understands that writing is not just a job, but a form of art through which ideas can spread that have the power to transform society. The stories we tell about the world are profoundly shaped by our experience of it, and allowing more men than women to tell their truth distorts reality and limits the range of ideas that make it into the public’s consciousness. Publishers who practice these values are currently few and far between, but they do exist and we should support these publications as much as possible.
Finally, we need to stop telling women that it is their responsibility to ensure they get treated fairly. No marginalized group ever got their fair share of anything by asking the group in power if they would please stop oppressing them. And as my story reveals, telling women to fight for themselves does not always work, and in fact can come with its own negative consequences. Sexism and unequal compensation (in the writing industry and elsewhere) are not individual problems that individual women can solve themselves by just saying the right things or bringing the right attitude to pay negotiations — they are collective problems that require collective action.
The part of my story that hurts me the most is remembering how I initially felt when I received the editor’s email pulling my piece. For about five seconds after reading it, I regretted asking about money. In those five seconds, I felt a desperate need to apologize for asking, in an effort to hopefully save my article. In those five seconds, the patriarchy came crashing down on me in full force and I was powerless to its ability to make me feel ashamed for speaking up.
Very quickly my regret turned to anger and indignation once I regained the rational consciousness in which I understood how unfairly I was being treated, but those five seconds will never go away, and thinking about that short period of time incites rage and despair. It’s in those momentary periods of self-doubt that a little part of us dies, and our defenses and willingness to fight the system that tells women and other marginalized groups to stand down are weakened. For those five seconds, the patriarchy won.
That’s how deeply ingrained these gendered commandments are — they become our automatic responses, even when we consciously reject such prescriptions.