"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Gender Gap from One Editor's Perspective

So here's a thing that is happening to me: Someone who has worked on some of my favorite comics of all time is chatting with me about his experiences as a comic editor (of some prestige and for 20 years or so) as regards hiring women artists, writers and editors. That's a pretty cool early result of my year-long experiment of only buying comics that are written or drawn by women.  It started when I suddenly realized that my experiment meant that I wasn't going to be able to buy some of my favorite comics of all--the Hellboy family of comics, including B.P.R.D., Hellboy in Hell, Abe Sapien and the like. It made me curious, since I've been reading the books for a while and couldn't remember when I've read one that involved a woman creator, and after some looking around, I couldn't find any female creators for any of the books. I reached out to Scott Allie, who I knew would know the answer.  Allie was kind enough to get back to me! It turns out I was wrong, but sadly not by much:

Curious, I asked if there were some coming up.  Allie said no, but was cool with discussing the subject in a non-twitter-sized format:

It's kind of incredible to me that the Editor-in-Chief of a comics company would bother responding to tweets from a stranger, and then exchange some emails--I think it says something not only about how great comics are as a medium, but also about how important companies like Dark Horse are, and folks like Allie. And I'd venture to say that Allie has been a strong ally for women in the industry (my words, not his) in various ways: Not only hiring female editors and other talent, but also getting out there and talking about problems with the industry regarding the gender gap. He gave an interview last year with Jill Pantozzi at The Mary Sue that addressed women in comics--characters and creative talent--in which the very subject of women in the Hellboy books was addressed, and it sums up a lot of what Allie indicated to me in his emails. I highly recommend reading the interview in The Mary Sue in full, because Allie details a lot of the work he's done regarding getting more women in the industry jobs. His ideas around the why and wherefore of a distinct lack of women creators on the Hellboy books is summed up in the article as well:
Allie: Absolutely. The goal is not to fill a quota. It’s to reflect reality. We’ve been given a little bit of a hard time, you know, by a handful of people online, literally a few, that BPRD doesn’t have more female creators involved. Despite everything else I’ve said here, I don’t think myself a hypocrite for saying that I haven’t made an explicit effort to hire women to write or draw [Mike]Mignola’s books. I haven’t made that a specific priority. I’ve looked for the right people to work on the books. A few times that’s led me to women, but I’ve not made it a quota. Nor have I done that on Buffy—it’s just that on Buffy, the pursuit of quality has more often led me to women. Is that because of the themes of Buffy? Or is it about what Buffy needs to be, creatively? I don’t know. It only occurred to me recently, when the diversity thing kicked up after Image Expo, that the first two comic book seasons of Buffy—real comics, all of them—were drawn by a black man, and the current season is drawn by a woman. That wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t a decision we made before we hired our talent, but it’s appropriate.
However, when hiring for editorial staff, I do make it a priority to bring in women. When you’re hiring writers and artists—when I am, anyway—I’m hiring them for what they’ve done, assuming that they will continue to do work of that calibre. When I’m hiring a young assistant editor, I’m hiring them on a hunch. I don’t really know what they’re capable of. I’m guessing, based on whatever factors I can take in. So it’s easier for me to let gender play a part. I’m not going to hire a less talented female penciler over a more talented male penciler, because I’m not looking to fill quotas—I believe I can judge those talents with some objectivity. Whereas with a potential assistant editor, I’m guessing, it’s way more subjective, and it feels like an appropriate place to take a hunch and say, We need another voice in the mix.
Allie has obviously put a lot of thought into this, and has made strides to get more women in comics. He also could have just said to me: Here, let me google it for you and you can go read The Mary Sue article! But instead he engaged. That is a good indicator to me that he's got a genuine interest in making things better. I also don't fault his basic strategy--having more and more women editors will mean more female writers and artists in comics, undoubtedly. But I'm also interested in why he doesn't go further, and try different things (and not just him, of course, but editors in comics in general).  

Choosing the best person for the gig is something that's hard to argue against--problem is, it's becoming more and more clear that we all have unconscious biases. All of us, not just the jerks. The people who are out-and-out misogynists have it, pro-feminist men have it, people doing good work have it. Hell, women have it against women, sometimes. It's a thing.  Why not try out some tools for avoiding unconscious bias as often as possible? The New York Philharmonic discovered that even well-meaning folks have unconscious bias, and gender-neutral hiring techniques caused the hiring of women to go up 40%. Allie has a thoughtful response to this idea:
But I won’t be a one-issue editor, I won’t hire with the sole motive of balancing this inequity, or put that motive above all else. My job, the thing I got into this work with the desire to do, is to make good books. That’s hard enough to do, in my opinion. If I work to create other obstacles and hoops to place between me and my goal, to further my personal political agenda, I am doing it wrong. In terms of hiring an editor or an assistant editor or a writer, the hoops I’d have to jump through to prevent myself from knowing the applicant's gender would prevent me from knowing other important things about them. So anyway, no, I can’t imagine a circumstance under which I’d do the equivalent of that double blind thing the orchestra did, though I’m glad it worked for them. 
Now, none of this means that we shouldn’t do things like Womanthology or the stuff Gail is doing with Red Sonja or Vampirella. There’s plenty of room for books like that, and, as importantly, there’s enough amazing talent out there that you can make those books great. And doing those things will help foster talent that we’ll all use in various ways on other projects. -- from an email
I don't work in comics. I don't even work in publishing. I've never been a paid editor, and that's why Allie's point of view is valuable to me--it has to be hard to make good comics, and to do so for so many years, so I empathize with the desire to not add extra work to that. It's pretty likely that I'll never know just how hard it can be do put out good books so consistently. I also think that, as men who have benefited in whatever ways from the unconscious biases of others, we have an added responsibility to do extra work to shift our workplace cultures. Maybe "double-blind" hiring can't work for a comics editor, but there have got to be some more ways of keeping unconscious bias to a minimum. Hiring women editors to do talent hiring will almost certainly help, something Allie is an strong advocate for, but as it stands, there is a way in which male editors who take this position reinforce the idea that it's the women who do get hired who will have to do the bulk of the work changing the culture, which is part of how the gender gap harms women. Also, as Allie himself pointed out to me, historically Dark Horse has had lots of the editors-in-chief who are women (Barbara Kesel, Diana Schutz and Melanie Crawford Chadwick, for example), which underlines to me the idea that hiring women editors just isn't enough to change the culture as regards gender.

I'm grateful that folks like Allie are making great comics, and thinking about these issues (and other issues of diversity, which I haven't touched on here). I think that we can be fans, and support comics pros, yet still ask these questions, still push them to create more and more diversity, to close the gender gap as quickly as possible. This interaction with Allie makes me hopeful, even though of course we may disagree on the details -- I'm going to miss these books for the year that I'm doing my experiment, and I'm hopeful that as things shift, such an experiment won't be useful anymore. 

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