What's in a Pen Name?

I spend a lot of time talking about the general pale/male/stale-ness of the media (h/t to Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark for that description), and I generally find myself chalking it up to a number of big, interrelated factors: Men are socialized to be more aggressive and confident, which translates to pitching more articles and getting published more often. Men are more likely to be well-connected to other powerful men in the business. Men are more likely to tout their expertise, while women will seemingly do anything to downplay their knowledge and experience. A disproportionate amount of care-giving responsibility forces women to down-shift their time-consuming media jobs. And on and on.

Really, just one word is needed: sexism. Take it from a woman at Copyblogger, who decided to adopt the pseudonym James Chartrand and began earning double and triple the income she did with her given name. Even I would never have guessed the difference would be so stark.

We all know about the pay gap, sure. But this isn't just about payment levels. For opinion writers, especially online journalists, a female byline is a liability when it comes to the amount of harassment received. Anecdotally, the women writers I know -- especially vocal feminists -- get much more hate mail than the men writers I know. Research backs this up: One study by the University of Maryland showed that people with female usernames are 25 times more likely to experience harassment.

Women adopting masculine pen names is nothing new. See: George Sand, the Brontës, J.K. Rowling, Digby. But, Amanda Hess points out, "James Chartrand" was more than that. It was a fully constructed online identity -- under which the writer disparaged "mommy bloggers," made sexist comments about female coworkers, and was accused by her commenters of failing to create an "inviting community for women." It wasn't a test of whether you can get ahead by adopting a male pen name. It was a test of whether you can get ahead by pretending to be part of the ol' boys club. And the answer is a resounding, but not surprising, yes.

Recently, a friend decided to change her byline from her given name, Nicole McClelland, to her nickname she answers to in real life, Mac McClelland. Now, Mac is a total bad-ass. She wrote a soon-to-be-published book about Burma. She reports on international human rights issues for Mother Jones. Her career was well underway with the "Nicole" byline. She didn't decide to change it because she felt the female connotation held her back -- she wants people to know she's a woman. She just wants her byline to match up with what she's called in real life. Still, she told me, many women were unenthusiastic about the switch. She also struggled with the feeling that she was rejecting her gender by adopting a male-seeming byline. As Spencer Ackerman notes, there is a proud tradition of women doing seriously tough reporting, and I imagine Mac doesn't want to be excluded from that pantheon because her byline makes her seem like she is a grizzled old man who likes to down beer at the VFW.

--Ann Friedman

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