Week 6 update: Breaking down gender roles / by Benjamin Woo

If you are at all interested in the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the comics industry (and you probably are if you’re reading this blog about work in comics…), then you can’t have helped but to see the recent outpouring of commentary around the MariNaomi / Scott Lobdell sexual harassment “case.” Women Write About Comics has a handy post that summarizes the particulars and links to some of the primary documents.

Former comic-book editor and current Wired.com contributor Rachel Edidin had a series of widely shared and very insightful posts on her Tumblr on the ways that the gendered division of labour within the comics industry makes it much less likely that women are in a position to stand up against harassment (whether targeted at them or a colleague or peer). The assertion here is that most women in comics work as editors (and often as relatively junior ones in the corporate structure), and are thus more vulnerable than famous, celebrated male “creators” doing the harassing.

I got to wondering if I could demonstrate this gendering of work in comics in the preliminary data set. As you may recall from my first update, women make up just under 30% of the completed survey respondents. That proportion has held pretty steady ever since. But just knowing how many women are working in comics doesn’t tell us much about how they are distributed within the industry.

The first two tables I want to show you cover the gender distribution by occupational roles and vice versa. All the numbers I’ll look at today have been percentages to make it easier to compare them across categories.

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In table 1, we see the proportion of male, female, and other respondents who work in each of these roles (these are their self-reported “main role” from the last three years), respectively. Here, it appears that a roughly equivalent proportion of men and women are editors. There are a number of roles where fewer women work than men, but the one role that more women occupy than men is writer/artist.

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Table 2 flips the terms of reference around. Now we’re looking at the proportion of workers in each role who are of each gender. The most obviously lopsided categories are letterer and cover artist. Only two people who say they primarily work as letterers have completed the survey all the way to the end, and, of them, only one answered the gender question; hence, in table 2, 100% of letterers report having a gender identity that is neither male nor female. Similarly, the small number of respondents who principally work as cover artists are throwing things off.

(Confidential aside to any letterers or cover artists reading this, please take the survey!)

More subtly, we can compare the split in each of these categories to the overall 30/70 ratio of men to women in the data set as a whole. Women appear to be overrepresented (relative to the set as a whole, but certainly not the population of humans!) as pencillers (40/60), writer/artists (36/62), and ever-so-slightly as editors (31/69). They are, conversely, underrepresented in every other role.

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A more detailed analysis would tell us if these differences are statistically significant. But I think we can already see that they are probably not representative.

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All along in these updates, I’ve noted that the “mainstream” sector of comics production is underrepresented. We see that in the relatively low numbers working in roles that are distinctive to the “industrial” production model used in mainstream publishing and the large numbers who work primarily as writer/artists. We also see it in the questions I’ve used as a proxy for publishing sector. We can see, for example, in the figure to the left that a much greater proportion of women self-publish, whether digitally or in print, than work with publishers. Indeed, more than half of women respondents are self-publishers.

But do any of these discrepancies make a difference in how women experience work in comics? Eventually, I’ll explore these questions in a series of interviews with creative workers. But, for the moment, it may be instructive to look back at our measures of subjective well-being (left) and job satisfaction (right) through the lens of gender:

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Again, these charts represent proportions in order to enable comparisons. As we can see, women and men are roughly equivalent in terms of overall life satisfaction, with slightly more women saying they’re dissatisfied and slightly more men calling themselves neutral. When we flip over to job satisfaction specifically, everything is levelled off somewhat. But notice that – while men seem to split around the dissatisfied and satisfied options, with a small but notable preference for satisfied  – virtually the same proportion of women are dissatisfied, neutral, and satisfied (26%, 26%, and 27%, respectively).

In conclusion, there is limited support for Edidin’s hypothesis, and there are several good reasons to think that current distortions in the data – that is, the likely overrepresentation of alternative comics creators – are hiding the full extent of the situation. I would expect that, as more survey results come in and more in-depth analysis is completed of the full data set, we should be able to better substantiate the anecdotal evidence.