thinking about archaeology

Where are all the women?

I don’t often get called “whitey” or a “discriminator”, or accused of “femicide”, but those words seem to have been addressed at me (and other “events organisers, editors in broadcasting and the media, radio and TV producers, commissioners and jurors”) in a vitriolic and perhaps wilfully thoughtless piece by Bidisha in last week’s Guardian. Of course, I can take it – I’m an editor. But there’s a serious issue here, which is the continuing dominance by men of the powerful and creative ends of the arts and media, to be seen against a wider engagement that is plainly more balanced, if not weighted towards women (“Women write, read, edit and publicise more fiction than men”, claims Bidisha). Though the article was not about race, Bidisha appears to think that humanity divides into whites and Arabs. As Julian Baggini has already commented, things are far more complicated than she seems to believe. Editors, organisers and producers are facilitators, not gods.

I’ve been editing British Archaeology for six years. There is only one editor, and I’m a bloke, so inevitably some of the content is written by a man that might otherwise have been contributed by a woman. Nonetheless, all that time I’ve been struck by the preponderance of male names in the magazine, apparently immune to my attempts to rectify the balance. (The only other British archaeology magazine, Current Archaeology, is edited by Lisa Westcott, though she has editorial assistance from six others of whom only one is female). I’ve never actually sat down and added up any of the figures before, so now seems a good time to do so.

First point. A lot of women study archaeology at university. Consider this (courtesy of the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency):

In 2008/9 women archaeology students outnumbered men: women constituted 60% of forensic and archaeological science students, and 55% of archaeology students.

(Meanwhile in 2007/8 – latest figures – 19% of all UK professors were female while women made up 43% of all academic staff.)

Second point. A lot of women work in archaeology. In 2007/8, according to the Institute for Archaeologists, 41% of British archaeologists (totalling an estimated 6,865) were female (compared to 46% in the national workforce). Across five categories, women varied from 39% (“field investigation and research services”) to 63% (“museum and visitor/user services”).

Third point. Despite the above, British Archaeology magazine is mostly written by men. In the past year’s issues (107–112):

Of 53 feature writers, 13 were women (25%).

Books reviewed were written or edited by a total of 140 people, of whom 36 were women (26%).

10% of the book reviews were written by women (eight out of 78; as I write more than my fair share – 20 in the past six issues – that would be a little better if the editor were a woman and wrote the same number as I did; omitting mine, eight out of 58 is 14%).

Of 18 author photos (chosen by me, though sometimes authors decline to provide one when asked), four were of women (22%).

Of five regular writers (including Mick Aston), one is female (20%).

All six back-page interviews (from Simon McBurney to Simon Thurley) were of men.

Over at Current Archaeology, there is a similar pattern. In its past six issues, for example (omitting one devoted to Hadrian’s Wall, which seems to have been written by two men):

Of 31 feature writers, five were women (16%)

Books reviewed were written or edited by a total of 35 people, of whom four were women (11%).

(CA editors might calculate the precise figure for features slightly differently, as it’s not always possible to tell who wrote something, but the general impression would remain.)

So 55–60% of archaeology students are women; about 40% of working archaeologists are women; and at most, a quarter of British Archaeology is written by women. What’s going on? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. What I can say is that Bidisha really does not understand publishing.

What gets into British Archaeology comes about through a combination of unsolicited submissions and pestering by the editor. The sex of a contributor is as material a factor as their shoe size – ie it is completely irrelevant. It is the quality of the writing and above all the stories that matter. If it were any other way, the editor would deserve to be fired, and, more importantly, the magazine to vanish from the shelves.

Taken at face value, Bidisha’s rant is driven by naivety and ignorance. Yet there clearly is a gender imbalance. I’d like more women to write for British Archaeology. But what can I do? I’m not going to publish anything simply because it was written by a particular type of author. The very fact that Bidisha was able to see the problem in such a huge range of venues and organisations, indicates that it is a wider, social issue. I’m only an editor. I try to entertain and inform. But the role of British Archaeology is not to reshape western democratic nations.

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7 responses

  1. “I’d like more women to write for British Archeology….but what can I do?”

    Given that you’re the editor, I would think you could do quite a bit.

    I’m the assistant editor of a journal over here in the States. We state on our policy page, for instance, that we encourage submission from women and people of color. Further, we work to solicit reviews and non-fiction works from women and people of color. We examine our policies from time to time to see if anything we’re doing is keeping people from submitting, or shutting people out.

    If your policies are creating a problem, you can change them. Declare that women are naive and silly, that’s why they can’t get published in your journal, or that you’re powerless — that’s fooling no one.

    April 30, 2010 at 1:50 am

  2. mikepitts

    I respect what you are doing, and we agree there is an issue to tackle here, but I would not take such an approach myself. Saying “we encourage submission from women” implies that you don’t encourage submissions from other groups; you don’t say you encourage someone with dyslexia, for instance, so does that mean you discourage them? We’re all part of many minorities. I’m sure I’m not the only editor (the issue is a very widespread phenomenon) who would find the implication that I have “policies” that somehow discourage or exclude women from the magazine patronising. And who ever declared that women are naive and silly? Where did that come from? I would suggest that by thinking you can change the level of contributions to your magazine from women, simply by asking for them, and without compromising the magazine’s content, is greatly underestimating the complexity and scale of the issue within society. But if it really works, good luck!

    June 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    • P Smith

      “We’re all part of many minorities…”

      What? You’re kidding right? Which pertinent minorities do you belong to? Perhaps you’re a trainspotter?

      June 10, 2010 at 12:53 pm

  3. mikepitts

    In this instance I belong to the minority of men, which of course exposes my sloppy wording on that point, and apologies for that. But I stand by the point, which is that giving special preferences to contributors because of the group they belong to (however large or samll) rather than the quality or interest of the contribution, is wrong. And if I don’t give such special preferences, but seem to imply that I might, that is also wrong. The magazine I edit speaks for itself, in that there is, I hope, never any content that could be read as suggesting that any group or individual is prefentially treated or superior to another in any way. Seeing that happens IS part of my job.

    June 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    • P Smith

      It isn’t about giving preference based on ‘group’, its about enabling contributions from under-represented groups whose quality of work is comparable. If we all had equal opportunties then this arguement would be un-neccessary. But we don’t, so how do you enable ‘equal representation’?

      June 11, 2010 at 10:12 am

      • mikepitts

        But how can you “enable contributions from under-represented groups” without “giving preference based on ‘group’”? No editor worth their salt would claim to do anything other than fully enable all potential contributors. And if you promise the former while avoiding the latter, to put it bluntly, you are being deceitful and patronising, which it should go without saying is the last thing I would want to do as an editor. If, to follow your argument, we do not all have equal opportunities to contribute to a publication, then in most cases, and certainly in the case of British Archaeology, that has nothing to do with the publication – it’s a wider issue within society, and it is that issue that needs to be addressed, not the messenger.

        June 11, 2010 at 10:32 am

  4. Pingback: Where are all the women? (The ethics of television archaeology, Part 3 of 4) | Flinders Archaeology Blog

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