Counting Heads

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / March / April 2004
June 15th, 2007
Does the New York Times Book Review favor men? Paula Caplan, a visiting scholar at the Pem-broke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, thinks so. During 2002 and 2003, Caplan and Mary Ann Palko, a psychotherapist, reviewed fifty-three consecutive issues of the Book Review and found that 72 percent of the books reviewed there were by men and 66 percent of those reviewing them were male.

“I like to work with people,” says Caplan, a psychologist whose latest book, They Say You’re Crazy, accused the new edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s bible, the Diagnostic and Stylistic Manual of Mental Disorders, of being unscientific. So she e-mailed Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath, apprising him of the 2:1 disparity and cc-ing the paper’s ombudsman, Daniel Okrent.

McGrath’s response left her cold: “We don’t have any plans at the moment for changing how we assign books, but I would be curious, all the same, to see your study,” he wrote,

“… And, if I’m persuaded that we are seriously out of whack I will certainly look into ways of redressing the balance.” McGrath said he’d been “making a conscious effort to use more women reviewers … especially on the more prominent, attention-getting books,” but that good reviewers “of either sex” were hard to find. That “more books are written by men than by women” he had no doubt.

Caplan offered to put him in touch with female reviewers (he said he welcomed names but warned that the Times’s standards were high). She wanted to know where he got his data indicating that more books by men were being published than by women. He stopped answering her e-mails.

It may be worth noting that all this took place last December, after McGrath had announced his plan to step down as the book review’s editor, and at a time when the media were hungry for news of his successor and eagerly publishing every name rumored, as well as suggestions for improving the book review—usually in the form of scathing critiques.

When McGrath went silent, Caplan notified Okrent that she and Palko intended to send out a press release with their findings. She added, “I hope you don’t think it presumptuous of me to say that of course it would be wonderful publicity for the New York Times if it were made known that some rectifying of this major disproportion was in the pipeline.”

Her press release contained no such announcement. It did contain a quote from early feminist organizer Gloria Steinem (“It’s one more instance in which women are treated as consumers, but don’t decide or profit from what is consumed”). And author Marilyn French pointed out that a similar study in the 1980s had led to a protest and a shift in the Book Review’s gender ratio—from 3:1 to 2:1. She expressed concern that it hasn’t budged since.

The release gave no hint, however, of McGrath’s offer to review Caplan’s data seriously (she says she never sent it to him; her study was unfunded and has not been published) or to redress an imbalance if one existed. And in January the Village Voice picked up on the press release in an article that ran under the headline “Boy, Girl, Boy: Sexism at the NYT Book Review?”

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March / April 2004