Where are all of the female authors and thought leaders?

16 minutes


Why am I so tired?

Why are you likely thinking asking so many questions upfront is grating and cliché’?1This font does not have accents; as such, attempts to write some words must be forgiven in advance.

Why do female authors only account for 2 out of the top 15 current bestselling books?

Why do we constantly devalue women’s work? And why do I also devalue women’s work, despite being a woman?

Somehow, every decision you’ve ever made has led you right here, reading this. That’s a miracle. It’s one I’m grateful for and don’t take lightly. I’m writing this because I want you, dear reader, to know how much I value you, and how your act of sharing my work, of telling people about me (and other female writers) is more meaningful than you realize.

It wasn’t until I dated a lawyer who spelled things out for me that I began to understand the racial disparities of incarceration in the U.S.

  • If you are black, you are more likely to get pulled over
  • more likely to have your car searched
  • if the police find drugs or catch you for a traffic violation, you’re more likely to get a citation or arrested
  • more likely to go to trial
  • more likely to be found guilty
  • If found guilty, you’ll get a longer, harsher sentence.

There isn’t one piece of data showing that BIPOC are more likely to be incarcerated—there are a million pieces of data that add up to a fundamentally unjust criminal justice system. Being black is a liability every step of the way.

If you’re trying to make it as a writer — or even just trying to be taken seriously as a professional human being — not being a white male is also a liability at every step. You’re more likely to get ignored or dismissed by sources; less likely to get a response or commission from an editor; get paid much less per article; less likely to be considered an expert; have your writing evaluated more negatively; less likely to get shared by readers; more likely to attract dismissive or hateful comments; less likely to get a book deal; less likely to attract attention by reviewers or readers.

Your work and time are valued less by everyone.

As a result of this cumulative advantage, who do we see when we look at the bestseller lists?

The Time Tax

A few years ago at a meet-up for science writers, I was talking to Mike, a fellow psychology author. We interviewed a lot of the same people and read a lot of the same research. I started whining.

“I just wish I didn’t have to email so many people to get a response, sometimes. Even when I just want a PDF.”2I now get a lot of my PDFs on Google Scholar or LibGen.

“They don’t send you copies? Do they know you have a book deal?” I showed him the emails I sent to make sure they weren’t too long or annoying. He was still confused. “Just get them on the phone.”

“This guy is available next month. I have two questions.”

“You can’t just get them on the phone??”

After a minute, it became clear how much less time Mike had to spend to get copies of papers and quotes for articles—even if he was in the preliminary stage of research, without an assignment.

I had to call about 5-10 people to get an interview scheduled for the following month; Mike usually got an interview with anyone—on that same day. Nether of us had any idea that our experiences were so different.

We discussed and estimated that I had to send at least 5 emails to get a response — typically passed off to a lab assistant, grad student, or communications department for booking in the distant future — while he had no problems getting phone time and PDFs that week, if not the same day.

First, being a woman means that you pay a Time Tax. When people do not take your inquires as seriously, you have to work more to get the same amount of work done. Everything gets delayed.

Writing While Female

Remember Bruce Willis’s realization at the end of The Sixth Sense — when everything he’d been through became perfectly clear, horrible, and heartbreaking? That was me, at the bar and on the way home: I thought back to all of the emails I’d sent over the past several years, unanswered and dismissed after such careful crafting. All of those lingering questions. All of that time spent searching and waiting and hoping.

I thought about editors at publications I’d contacted; the additional research and pitches they requested before disappearing. I thought about Mike’s speedy responses from sources for interviews, phone time with editors to “bounce around some ideas,” and the grace of several rounds of edits — all while getting paid more money per article.

What would my world be like if I always got responses? If people shared and subscribed to my stuff as much as his? How much more work do I have to do to in order to make the same amount of money as Mike? Studies will never tell the whole story, since this is the kind of thing you can’t quantify in any holistic way. The cumulative impact of having a female name is exhausting.

Having a female name means getting lower ratings

This is the part of the story when someone might use words like anecdata and exaggerate or peer-reviewed research or criticize my emailing technique. And, in response, this is the part of the story when I remind that person about my experience working alongside a four-time New York Times bestselling author everyday for three years, witnessing the alternate universe of what it’s like to have the right name. (This is the part of the story where I remind researchers that peer-reviewed research, in addition to being collected by biased individuals, fails to capture the nuance of actual life.) But all of the studies that we do have point in the same direction: the inevitable exhaustion of women.

Emily Glassberg Sands sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country, plays under the names Michael Walker and Mary Walker. Identical scripts written under a female name “received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s.”

Writer Catherine Nichols decided to see what kind of reactions she’d get sending out her writing under a different name. Fifty literary agents got queries from Catherine, while another fifty got the exact same query from Charles Nichols.

Of the fifty emails sent by Catherine, 2 agents asked to see her manuscript.

Of the fifty emails sent by Charles, 17 agents asked to see it.

Literary agents are people who have willingly chosen to read unpublished manuscripts for a living and get paid based on their ability to sell them, so if their salary is contingent upon selling books, they should be focused on the quality of the pages.

Having a female name attached to pages means giving those pages a lower score.

Alas, the brain. Our action-oriented energy-efficient prediction machine, when judging value of the unknown or ambiguous, uses whatever cues are available. We subconsciously favor people we can easily imagine playing a certain role, people who look like those who’ve been successful before, without realizing how much every single interaction adds up to a cumulative advantage over time.

Success in cultural markets depends on getting attention by the right eyeballs, and then making sure that those eyeballs evaluate us favorably. There are no anonymous submissions: everyone wants to know how big your audience is and what you look like.

“He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,” Nichols wrote.

Having a female name is demoralizing

Years before I discovered that having a male name—or Chip’s name—attached to an email would get me a speedy response, I discovered what else can happen when you have a female name.

You’re taken less seriously.

When I began the long process of interviewing researchers for my book, Can You Learn to Be Lucky? I spoke with researcher Adam Kepecs, without realizing that he had just written a take-down of Jonah Lehrer in Nature.3Adam Kepecs. “Decisions, decisions…” Nature. Volume 458, page 835 (April 15, 2009). Link. Kepecs, I think, told me everything he wishes that he would have been able to say to Lehrer.

“You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kepecs proceeded to talk down to me for 25 minutes about the inane nature of my questions. The danger to the scientific community that I was posing. (?)

Being attacked, doing housework: death by a 1,000 cuts

Years ago, a boss asked why I spent so much money on a gym membership if I spent most of my time on the treadmill.

“Just go to the park!” he suggested.

“By the time I get out of work during the fall, it’s dark. I don’t want to get raped.”

“I never thought about that,” he said.

I know, I said.

Chronic stressors? Yes, those exist. They take years off of people’s lives. They limit where people can go. What we feel safe doing. According to an oft-cited study, when men get married, they do one less hour of housework per week.

When women get married, they essentially pick up an extra shift of work per week: they do seven more hours of housework, every week.

For most women, getting married means getting another job: taking care of your husband and his chores. For most men, getting married is like gaining a live-in helper. And yes, the emotional load counts even if you’re not married: female friends do the work. Female relatives do the work. Women do the work.

Always being expected to “do the work”—all while doing the emotional labor of smiling while you’re doing it—is chronic stress.4Research on the cognitive load of emotional labor, see here. Stress, after all, is an imbalance of the demands made on an organism and the available resources to cope with them.

This is not to say that women aren’t on bestseller lists because they, ya know, have husbands and have to pay for gym memberships. What I am saying is that stress affects cognition, health, and everything. Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men, a mental health crisis that needs more attention.

Studies about having the wrong name

White job applicants who had served jail time for a felony were more likely to receive a callback than black applicants with no criminal record.5Pager, Devah. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 5 (2003): 937-975. Omitting references to being black or Asian American from one’s resumé (“whitening” it) is a boon: after whitening their resumé, Asian Americans get nearly twice as many callbacks; black candidates get two and a half times as many callbacks. (In that study, the organization didn’t matter: “Employers claiming to be pro-diversity discriminated against resumes with racial references just as much as employers who didn’t mention diversity at all in their job ads.”)

My favorite story from the gender callback divide: Kim O’Grady got no responses whatsoever after sending out resumes for four months. Then, as he writes:

I made one change that day. I put Mr. in front of my name on my CV. It looked a little too formal for my liking but I got an interview for the very next job I applied for. And the one after that. It all happened in a fortnight, and the second job was a substantial increase in responsibility over anything I had done before.

Where I had worked previously, there was a woman manager. She was the only one of about a dozen at my level, and there were none at the next level. She had worked her way up through the company over many years and was very good at her job. She was the example everyone used to show that it could be done, but that most women just didn’t want to. It’s embarrassing to think I once believed that. It’s even more incredible to think many people still do.

Yes, we have data on how being female impacts your career

One of the big problems I hear from people who think that it’s sexist to hire women because they’re women is that we have no data to show how being a woman impacts your career. Yes, we do.

But we also have data points for each step along each way, showing how much more difficult it is for women to be heard.

In a world with an equal 50-50 gender split, you have to ask:

  • How many teachers don’t take female student writing seriously enough to encourage a career?
  • How many girls look at books written by male authors and figure “this isn’t for me,” the way I felt about politics when I looked at posters of the presidents?
  • How many female writers don’t have the time to finish their projects because their partners aren’t picking up the slack at home?
  • How many times do women have to ask for interviews before they get one?
  • How many more emails to women have to send to an editor to get an assignment?
  • How much more money do men get for the same assignment?
  • Of those women who have the guts to reach out to an editor or an agent, how many of them get ghosted?
  • How much more positively do we evaluate male writing?
  • How many women aren’t offered enough of a book advance to quit their day jobs?
  • How many times do you, personally, fail to pass along a piece of writing because you take it less seriously because it’s written by a female?
  • As a book reviewer, how much more likely are you to pass on a book written by a woman?

And we have the collective data: As I write this, female writers are only responsible for 2 out of the top 15 bestsellers. That’s an average, based on my intermittent perusal of the nonfiction bestseller list. That is the cumulative impact of the constant, lifelong chipping away.

The years erode confidence. Equal efforts get penalized.

Out of 15 bestsellers, why aren’t 8 of them written by women? Why only 2?

What stories will the world never get to read? What perspectives will the world never understand?

Opting Out Entirely

Of course, I had no idea how much different my daily experiences were until I worked alongside Chip Heath for three years.

In my experience there is little correlation between people who are public, or people who are loud, and people who are knowledgeable. There are some very knowledgeable people who are public and loud. I follow them. I read their stuff. But there are a far greater number of people who are equally (and often more) knowledgeable, but simply prefer not to engage in public discourse. These are the people that matter.

Paul Adams

Judging from my own personal experiences–the horrific emails I’ve received from readers—it’s possible that a lot of women opt out of public discourse because it’s more difficult than men can ever imagine. But if something doesn’t affect you daily, why would you care?

“I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy, to be told instead she has leadership skills.”

Sheryl Sandberg

Bias against women is as entrenched as it was a decade ago and gender equality progress has gone into reverse, according to a UN report.

Nine out of 10 people of all genders have a bias against women, found the Gender Social Norms Index, a figure unchanged from data collected more than a decade ago.

Empirical evidence suggests significant gender differences in the total productivity and impact of academic careers across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Paradoxically, the increase in the number of women academics over the past 60 years has increased these gender differences. Yet, we find that men and women publish a comparable number of papers per year and have equivalent career-wise impact for the same total number of publications. This suggests the productivity and impact of gender differences are explained by different publishing career lengths and dropout rates.

Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines

In every industry, even when there are substantial increases in gender parity, women drop out.

Why? Death by a thousand cuts.

Any biological organism has an imperative to only engage in work that’s rewarded.

What You Can Do

Let’s stop thinking of life as a zero-sum game. Stop thinking of everyone as competition. Stop thinking that diversity is irrelevant. Start promoting, valuing, celebrating works from people who do not look like you. Believe their stories. Take them seriously. Make introductions to editors and agents and hiring managers. If you feel like this smacks of favoritism or giving out extra credit or judging things unfairly, remember that things are already being judged unfairly.

Productivity Gurus are always drawn to the stuff that’s right in front of our face, the stuff they can control: the phone, the internet, their filing system.

For some of us, being able to keep going and get things done requires a superhuman level of grit, resilience, motivation, and blind optimism. I can’t find anything about the anger or fatigue or burnout that accompanies the realization that having the wrong name is a liability to your work life—but it is.

Every decision by others is a combination of factors you can and can’t control — the theme of my first book — which helps me not let success get to my head, or failures get to my heart.

Hire women.

Read women.

Share our stories.

Give us a chance.