Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Where the Women Are: Tough Questions About the Gender Disparities in Children’s Publishing

We’re celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter #kidlitwomen


Recently a group of children’s lit colleagues and I (all women) did some head-scratching about our industry’s gender disconnect. We puzzled over the fact that the majority of people in positions of power – those who publish, buy, sell, review or advocate for children’s books — are female, yet the majority of the best-known, best-selling, award-winning, and in-demand authors are male.

A quick review of some statistics:

  • 78% of children’s book editors and/or publishing industry staff members are women, though that number drops to 59% at the executive/board level (according to a survey by Lee & Low)
  • 85% of literary agents that represent children’s and/or YA books are women (according to
  • 75% of school teachers are women; at the pre-school/kindergarten level that number jumps to 97.5% (according to the National Center for Education Statistics)
  • 82% of librarians are women (according to the ALA), and the vast majority of children’s lit reviewers are librarians (I couldn’t find stats on this, but a search of submission guidelines and reviewer lists for School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist and PW confirms it anecdotally)
  • 57% of children’s book buyers are women (according to Nielsen’s US Children’s Book Landscape report)
  • 14 of the 15 members of the 2018 Newbery Award committee were women. 13 of the 15 members of the 2018 Caldecott committee were women (From ALA)

Because my conversation partners and I all run children’s lit education programs — some online, some bricks and mortar — we also discussed the fact that the majority of people who aspire to write for children, study children’s book writing and/or participate in workshops and conferences specific to children’s literature are women. The statistics below are from the programs that I direct, but the numbers correspond fairly closely to my colleagues’ programs, and likely to others:

  • 87% of the applicants to, and participants in, Stony Brook Southampton’s annual Children’s Lit Conference are women
  • Since the inception of our Children’s Lit Fellows graduate certificate program in 2013, 89% of applicants and participants have been women
  • With respect to our faculty, 63% of our conference workshop leaders, and 90% of our Fellows faculty mentors, are women

Yet as we are all aware, (and as has been published by VIDA in annual studies), relative to the aforementioned ratios, women are consistently under-represented and under-recognized in children’s publishing with respect to reviews, awards, bestseller lists and invitations to speak or present at events and conferences. Somehow, as the pool of largely female aspirants moves toward publication and beyond, the male minority navigates to the top.

Given the numbers, it’s clear we can’t blame men for the disparity. So, what’s going on?

My colleagues and I took a stab at a few possible theories, some more plausible than others. Most were sweeping (not to mention sexist) generalizations. A few made us laugh, but one or two made us squirm a little. Here are a few, in no particular order:

  • Men are better at asserting themselves (pitching, negotiating, etc.)
  • Men are better in touch with (or more willing to express) their “inner child” — hence their writing is fresher, funnier, more “kid-friendly”
  • Men have more time — or are more willing to make time — for the “business” of publishing. Women are more conflicted about taking time away from family, household or other obligations to do the necessary networking, pitching and self-promotion
  • Women in power prefer to “have lunch” with men (this of course extends beyond lunch, to encompass working partnerships)
  • Women are innately competitive with one another, but not so much with men
  • Women instinctively favor working with men for primal reasons (men protect the cave)
  • Many powerful women have made difficult choices with respect to the balance of career and family, and may hold resentment towards, or have trouble relating to, those with different priorities
  • Girls will read books with male protagonists, but not so much the other way around. And if a boy is “caught reading,” he’d rather be reading a book written by a guy. This would seem to give a marketing edge to men — and/or women who write under a pseudonym and/or use only initials.

Like I said, wildly sexist generalizations… some perhaps even silly. And certainly not a comprehensive list. But even if just one of these theories has any truth to it, what is to be done about it?

It seems excessive to suggest that we all use initials or any other tactic to mask our gender when submitting a manuscript (though my colleagues and I did spend some time traveling down that theoretical road.) Even if it worked on an individual basis, it wouldn’t do much to upend the overall disconnect, beyond further proving that it exists.

The larger and more troubling question is the degree to which women may favor working with men for deep, maybe even subconscious, psychological reasons… reasons that are difficult to admit to, let alone change.

Those of us who work in children’s publishing, whether we write, illustrate, or put books into the hands of our intended audience, must by necessity remain in touch with the feelings and concerns of young readers. Looking back on my own school days, I remember gravitating mostly toward “guy” friends — probably due to my feelings of inadequacy and trust issues with other girls. I am happy to say that these many decades later I have a strong sisterhood of girlfriends… but old wounds can feed a subconscious bias if one isn’t vigilantly honest with oneself.

Thankfully, women in our industry are beginning to band together to bring greater awareness to our work, to shine a light on the discrepancies and disconnects that have been so pervasive. But as we attempt to make our voices heard, many of us feel conflicted about putting ourselves “out there” in today’s reactionary culture. What if I appear bitchy, whiney, shrill, bossy, angry? What if I get slammed for my ideas? Will it affect my publishing prospects? My social life? My self-esteem? I’ve seen all these fears and more expressed, and I share them.

Yet in order to take the steps, both individually and as a community, toward any lasting change, we must feel safe enough to express our feelings, opinions and ideas… or numb enough not to care about the reaction. To me, the latter runs counter to the essence of womanhood, so I’ll take the gamble and share a few ideas for possible ways forward:

  1. Uncomfortable though it may be, we women must ask ourselves hard questions about how we may have inadvertently contributed to our situation. Let’s do some serious soul-searching with respect to our own past relationships with, behavior around, and feelings about other women, and ourselves… with an eye toward letting go of the “mean girls” that we once knew, or once were.
  2. Women in positions of power should actively seek ways to support and advocate for other women, in the workplace and beyond. Let’s look at our client lists, committees, datebooks and more, with a keener eye — and make some adjustments where needed.
  3. All women should have each other’s backs more. Let’s think twice before we attack someone for opinions that differ from ours, especially on social media. Let’s create safer spaces to take risks by asking more questions, and making fewer judgments, as a means of better understanding each other.
  4. And then… let’s try to do the same with men. Let’s spend some time trying to understand where they — especially those who behave badly — are coming from, what the roots of their behavior may be. Let’s explore how to have a constructive dialogue around that, with an eye towards healing the wounds that divide us right now. Let’s help men and boys find ways “to expand what it means to be a man without losing [their] masculinity,” as Michael Ian Black writes in his recent op-ed piece, “The Boys Are Not All Right.”
  5. Finally, let’s use our stories to spread the word. Let’s write about these issues in our books. Let’s help the next generation achieve true equality — equality that is curious about, and respectful of, our gender differences, equality that stems from mutual consciousness, care and compassion, equality that endures.




4 Responses to “Where the Women Are: Tough Questions About the Gender Disparities in Children’s Publishing”
  1. anon says:

    You left out nepotism. Some of the female editors and art directors date and/ or marry the males they hire.

  2. Meghan says:

    Well said! I fear all of the suggested might be true to some extent. After working at a bookstore where the children’s dept. was all female and the music department was almost exclusively male, I can say that I preferred working with the guys. I felt that the nature of working with all women is often catty and sometimes nasty and prone to starting up gossip. I also think we cannot (as much as the metoo movement would like to see this gone) subtract sexuality from interactions between men and women, because it’s obviously deeply subconscious. I know that a certain publicity department has given at least one man more publicity because he was “cute” and the ladies had a crush on him. I’m certain this was not the only instance. How often does this happen where 20-something publishing ladies have crushes on young, good looking authors? Thank you for writing this article. It is time that women examine their own actions and stop pointing the finger at men for the disparities in children’s publishing.

  3. Emily Goodman says:

    A very good and brave post. Thanks for opening up a difficult subject. The enemy is (partly) us.

    I can’t help but think this is related to our treatment of female characters in books, where it’s nearly impossible to find a YA that doesn’t have a romance in it somewhere, and it’s really difficult to find examples of female characters doing heroic things, which I define as the character acting on her own initiative to help someone or solve a problem, and the action goes counter to the prevailing wisdom in her circle, and the action doesn’t require superpowers or remarkable skills but is something any of us could do if we only had the guts. Even Katniss doesn’t always qualify as heroic under these criteria. Most girl characters only act counter to the prevailing wisdom in their circle when they’re running away from some problem in what I call the Nervous Breakdown plot.

    There are very few books out there that really grapple with feminist questions, in my view. E. Lockhart’s “Frankie Landau-Bankes” is one, and her “Dramarama” has a female character doing something heroic (by my criteria above). I understand that these books didn’t sell all that well, so she’s moved now to a different and more gimmick-y kind of plot (my opinion), for which she’s been rewarded with weeks on the bestseller list. The problems are in society, not only in our heads. People (especially women) are not rewarded for rocking the boat. We may give the idea lip service, but we genuinely are uncomfortable with it.

    I would add to your list of suggested reasons for pro-male imbalance that we all think male things are more important than female things (politics is more important than taking care of kids) and so books about male things deserve more attention and recognition. And by extension, we all feel that men are more important than women and so we take them and their books more seriously.

    Also, we all have absorbed the lesson that women must either take care of men or get their recognition. I’m thinking of the various Charismatic Men in our industry who post on Facebook “I stubbed my toe today” and immediately get 20+ responses from women either “taking care” of them (“oh, I’m so sorry! Feel better!”) or making witty remarks about it. (I have done this myself.) There are Charismatic Women who command similar attention for their posts, but not as many, and certainly not in proportion to the number of women in kidlit on FB.

    It’s easy enough to spot the imbalances and criticize what others are doing, but hard to know what to do to fix the problems, and I applaud your article for including constructive suggestions. They don’t feel like enough, but I don’t know what to add that would be any better. We all need to work on this more. It’s a wimpy conclusion after a heroic beginning. But at least it’s a beginning.

  4. I appreciate this honest look and conjecture for the why. Thank you, Emma!

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