The spotlight is on women in the crossword business this week, as we head towards David Steinberg’s Saturday-evening presentation about the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project and women’s contributions to the New York Times crossword over the decades. I don’t know what David’s historical data-mining has shown, but in the meantime, let’s begin a conversation.
I asked a group of female constructors a few questions. Here’s question 1 and a few responses:
Q: In the ’60s and ’70s, about half of the New York Times crosswords may have been by women. (This is based on Mark Diehl’s peek at several random weeks from 1967 and 1979. David Steinberg is likely to report more comprehensive data during his ACPT talk.) In recent years, the newspaper crossword bylines have been averaging more like 20% to 30% women. None of the current newspaper crossword editors is female (though puzzling’s earlier decades had some women editors like the great Margaret Farrar). What key factors do you think lead to this underrepresentation? (E.g., is it male gatekeepers, women having more of a work-plus-home-life time crunch, innate female inferiority, the societal patriarchy in general, potential constructors seeing so few women’s bylines that they are deterred from trying to make puzzles, or what?)
C.C. Burnikel, prolific LA Times/NY Times constructor, founder of the Crossword Corner blog: Constructing crosswords is largely a hobby, a solitary one. It requires long hours and days of uninterrupted focus. I often feel guilty ignoring my family and friends. I imagine other women feel the same. They just can’t find enough spare time (or find it worthwhile) to make puzzles which do not always have a good chance of getting accepted owing to the extreme competitiveness.
Tracy Bennett, NY Times/Chronicle of Higher Education constructor, crossword creator at Bust, a feminist magazine: My first commissioned puzzle was for the magazine Knitty, and during the process of studying the world of knitting and the beautiful variety of knitting patterns, I felt a lot of kinship with the (mostly, but not all) women who devote their creative energy to this craft. Like puzzle-making, it’s got its own community and can be as artistically sophisticated as anything you’d see in a gallery or museum. Both endeavors require patient, steadfast attention to interweaving details in order to make a pleasing design. I began to wonder later, when I saw the disparity between men and women in the bylines, if the computerization of the craft of puzzle-making had any impact on the gender shift we see today. I don’t like or support this “women craft, men work with computers” notion at all, but if there’s anything to it, it would tie into the larger paradigm historically of boys being encouraged to pursue mathematics, science, and computers, and girls writing, reading, and crafting. It’s just a sense I have that the men now dominating the constructor bylines are quite savvy with the technical aspects of constructing, either by education or by choice. So it’s not necessarily that puzzle-making is unattractive to women now, but rather that it may be more attractive to computer wonks generally, in this era, and I think that “techy” group still skews male.
Other thoughts I’ve had: How much are women encouraged to do the work and spend the time it takes to be great at something? I was very struck by the stories of women artists profiled in the documentary Who Does She Think She Is? Even today, in our much more liberated culture, it seems that society does not expect women to be great. We must be more than extraordinary, still, to end up having our work in a museum, for instance, where we are still hugely underrepresented. For some women, at least those with children, it can be nearly impossible to get a “room of one’s own” and even harder to demand it. A woman taking time away from her kids to pursue her art tends to be seen as self-serving, while a man who does so is seen as putting the time in that he needs to in order to be great. I don’t know what it’s like for twenty-somethings now in this regard. I just know what it’s been like for me, at almost 50, to get that space. It took waging some personal political wars in my home and trading hours I might have slept for constructing time. It means a lot to me and encourages me when I see other women in the bylines! It means I can do it and it’s worth the sacrifices I’m making.
Amy Reynaldo: I suspect that C.C. and Tracy are on key here, and that the all-too-common difficulty many women have in carving out some time for themselves slashes the time available for quasi-obsessive pursuits like making crossword puzzles. Married women and women with children generally shoulder the bulk of their family’s housework and childcare, while even men who have kids at home find it easier to devote time to leisure pursuits. Some of the most prolific female constructors are single and/or have finished raising their children, so their personal time is often easier to reclaim.
What are your thoughts on this question? Let’s move the discussion into the comments.
Thanks for starting this discussion, Amy. I look forward to hearing people’s thoughts on this. Some comments:
1) For those who haven’t read it, Ben Tausig opens up a similar discussion in Chapter 3 of his new book, The Curious History of the Crossword. It certainly doesn’t purport to be an exegesis on the topic, but the chapter touches upon a bit of interesting historical perspective.
2) I love that we’re having a discussion about underrepresentation in crosswords, and I think it’s important to use this period of increased consciousness about the issue to start thinking about ways to encourage underrepresented populations to take up crossword solving and constructing as hobbies. I’m particularly fond of programs like the J.A.S.A. Crossword Class, and I would love to see more such programs pop up in places where women (especially young women) are likely to enroll.
3) I really like what C.C. and Tracy said, and I just want to add a small gender theory piece. If we take Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice seriously, perhaps part of the reason for a gender gap in crossword constructing in the digital age is that it’s become a fairly impersonal business. One of Gilligan’s main theses is that women tend to (but don’t always) think in terms of an ethic of care. That is, Gilligan believes that women’s decisionmaking processes tend to focus on caring and interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, Gilligan proposes that men tend to have an ethic of justice, logic, and impersonality. Let me emphasize that Gilligan suggests these traits are typical of, but not defining of, men and women, and that this does not necessarily reflect my viewpoint or experience. That said, Gilligan has been a very influential feminist psychologist, and her work has been taken quite seriously by a generation of scholars.
As Tracy mentioned, constructing nowadays is largely technologically driven. I’d posit that technological advances in constructing have made personal mentorship in constructing easier, but also less necessary for a constructor to get their foot in the door. That is not to say that such mentorship doesn’t exist; however, technology has created a culture where crossword constructing is by default seen as a solitary rather than a group pursuit (C.C. talked about this a bit), which dissuades people from seeking mentorship in the first place. Tracy spoke of a feeling of “kinship” in the knitting community which I think is less well-developed in the crossword constructing community. Other than the enclave of young constructors that popped up at Brown (Lucido, Wheeler, Kagan, Last, et al.) recently, I can’t think of a constructing “group” that has close ties like any knitting group I know of. This might have something to do with the actual/perceived “competitiveness” of constructing, as C.C. mentioned. Perhaps those who are more active on Cruciverb-L than I am can either bolster or vitiate my point.
Also, while I think the crosswording community in general (and especially the solving community) is a caring and inclusive one , the most visible access points — the blogs — tend not to have what Gilligan would think of as an ethic of care. What I mean by this is that the blogs (we?) are more concerned with rules than with making sure everyone is included and having a good time [this is a direct reference to Gilligan, who treats these opposing ideas as epitomic of the ethics of justice and care, respectively]. Bloggers point out both the highlights and the flaws of puzzles, with honesty as a primary goal rather than fostering a culture of inclusion. This has led more than one observer, whether I agree or not, to call the crossword blogosphere harsh, snarky, or overly critical. To the extent that this is a recurring criticism of crossword blogs, we must take it seriously as a perception people have of us. I will say that I have the general impression that bloggers tend to be more positive, constructive, and generous when dealing with a debut constructor, but I wonder if and to what extent constructors who adhere to an ethic of care are deterred from constructing at all due to the critical tone of reviewers. Or, perhaps it’s a delusion of grandeur to think that the blogs have any impact on tyro constructors.
At any rate, the above are two possible ways in which crossword constructing may have shifted away from having an ethic of care and toward an ethic of justice, which Gilligan would point to as an explanation for the gender gap. Whether either phenomenon I’ve described has actually happened, or whether Gilligan’s theory is applicable, is certainly up for debate. I just wanted to bring Gilligan to the table.
4) I realize I may be prying open the floodgates here, but I also think it’s important to examine the underrepresentation of non-White, non-Asian constructors. I understand that part of the reason why the discussion heretofore has centered on the gender gap is that the available data has driven the discussion. Names are gendered in a (relatively) binary way, so it’s easy enough to approximate gender proportions in NYT bylines. Less easy but equally worthy would be a project to determine whether and why certain racial minorities are underrepresented in the crossword world. I hope this comment is taken not as an attempt to derail the discussion of the crossword gender gap, but rather an effort to enrich our understanding of the intersectional forces that have led certain populations to be disproportionately under/overrepresented in constructing.
This post got a lot longer than I intended it to be. Sorry for that. I hope it was coherent and interesting to those of you who made it this far.
There is something so deeply sexist about the idea that women require special “care” or can’t handle “criticism” that I don’t even know where to begin. “In a Different Voice” was important, but 40 years ago. Other feminist theorists will tell you slightly different things.
Before I start mansplaining post-1980 gender theory for everyone, I’ll stop.
Tracy’s comments are on point, I think. The tech gender divide is driving (at least partially) the crossword gender divide.
I love that you’re doing this, Amy.
Michael, I absolutely agree with your reaction to the pervasive and insidious notion that women as a class are too delicate to cope with criticism. I hope I didn’t come across as saying anything like that. That was certainly not my point in invoking Gilligan, nor do I have any reason to believe it was her point when writing In a Different Voice.
Gilligan’s ethic of care is primarily described as a relational and interpersonal alternative to Kohlberg’s individual theory of morality, that eschews universal standards in favor of context- and individual-sensitive assessment of what is right or good. Gilligan’s observations as I understand them, were that these two ethics exist, and that there is a correlation between gender and ethic.
The legitimacy of Gilligan’s observation that more ethic-of-care people tend to be women is certainly debatable and likely suspect if we read it Gilligan as an essentialist, as Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, Joan Tronto, and others have pointed out. This is precisely why I was careful to distinguish myself from Gilligan as a feminist thinker. I can’t say whether Gilligan believes there is a causative (rather than correlative) link between gender and ethic, but I personally disbelieve such a causation exists. To wit, my personal beliefs align with the ethic of care as a normative moral view. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Gilligan’s theory, in its best light, can be explained in a social constructionist way — that the ethic of care arises out of a response to patriarchal subjugation, which would explain its alleged prevalence among women (which again, I want to emphasize, may not exist at all).
I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that regardless of gender, people who hold an ethic of care may be deterred by the current constructing environment. Though this point is tangential to the discussion if you do not believe that more women than men espouse the ethic of care, I think it’s important to think about why potential constructors are deterred from constructing in general, and it’s also important to think about whether making fundamental structural changes is worthwhile to that end.
Thanks for your comments, Andy.
Every year when I go to the ACPT, I am struck anew by the prevailing whiteness-with-a-touch-of-Asianness of the crowd. I can identify several black and Latino participants by name but beyond those five or six people, I’m not missing many. I’d love to find a way to get kids’ puzzle books into urban schools as a way of getting more kids hooked on puzzles early and hopefully become lifelong solvers and perhaps constructors. My son’s grade school has 1650 kids from pre-K though 8th grade, about 70% Latino or black. Lots of kids from low-income and/or immigrant families—probably don’t see a ton of puzzle books at home. Let’s start a foundation and get this program going! And also work on luring high school and college kids into the art of making crosswords, particularly young women and kids of color.
Andy has more women’s-studies education than I do, so I’ll leave it to others to engage on Gilligan.
We touched briefly on this on Twitter a while back, but one thing that I haven’t really seen in this comment thread so far is the overwhelming cultural whiteness (which is, I guess, tied in to the skew away from youth culture) of puzzles like the Times. I don’t think that in and of itself is the main obstacle to greater POC participation, but it can’t be particularly encouraging.
As a horribly inadequate case study: Miles Davis has been clued 0/10 times for MILES in the Shortz era (1/11 pre-Shortz) and 0/14 times for DAVIS (3/9 pre-Shortz). This is actually completely shocking to me for some reason.
Whoops, I should mention that KINDOFBLUE appeared once in 2010 and once in 2011.
When you say that women are underrepresented, aren’t you saying that there is a “correct” ratio of men to women crossword constructors? Is the ratio supposed to be exactly the same as the ratio of men to women in the population?
As a woman, I’ve tried to construct puzzles once or twice. It’s just not the type of activity I enjoy, so I didn’t pursue it. The blogs certainly didn’t discourage me—I don’t think I even knew about them at the time. Is it because I haven’t been encouraged to tackle tough things because I’m a woman? That’s a possibility. It could also be because I have no interest in using computer programs to facilitate the process.
On the other hand, I am always complaining about the large amount of sports clues in crosswords. It annoys me that TDs and KOs and MVPs are considered general knowledge but quilting patterns are looked at as arcane. I wonder if that’s because there are more male constructors. I think if there were more females constructing, there would there be more terms from the arts, from crafts, and cooking—areas more women tend to be interested in.
It would be interesting to divide a group of puzzles by gender and see if there is a difference in types of clues they use. In other words, can you tell the gender of a constructor just by looking at the puzzle?
Given that all the main publications have male editors, we’d need to compare unedited puzzles, or women’s puzzles edited by women (or Liz Gorski’s Crossword Nation puzzles), with the more common male-constructed/male-edited puzzles in order to compare clues. I agree it would be interesting.
This is a great conversation. I think people are onto something re: the tech/gender divide. If the students I’ve encountered as a T.A. over the last few years are any indication, though, this might be changing. I’ve had a number of comp sci majors show up in my classes, and they were all women. Granted, this has to be taken in context: I teach the kind of humanities classes that ostensibly (we’re told) appeal more to women students, anyway, and I’m at a private D1 institution with a well-funded CompSci department that has the wherewithal to actively recruit young women and students of color into the major.
Still, we seem to be in an “Everyone should learn to code/DIY” cultural moment, and if the tech divide really is what’s in the way of more women constructors, maybe it can’t hurt that a proper tech education is becoming more and more of a civic ideal. (Yet another reason we need to recruit more young constructors.)
If we go along with that argument, though, it raises the question of why crossword construction should appeal so much more to tech-heads, in the first place — especially since it’s an art fundamentally rooted in language. I’ll leave the question of tech/humanist gender divides to people with hard data on that subject, but no matter the wisdom there, it certainly can’t hurt the cause to recruit more people whose primary investment is in Language rather than in the nerdy, solitary pleasures of “database management” (as Rex occasionally puts it).
I mean… It seems worth pointing out that a pretty dominant school of crossword experimentation — the triple/quad/whatever stack freestyle puzzle — is, like freestyles generally, entirely a boys’ club. It’s also a category of crossword that has a reputation for experimentation at the expense of fill. It’s inescapably boyish, not because men are worse constructors, but because — if the gender/tech divide really is the impediment to appeal, here — these puzzles necessarily emphasize the Database aspects of construction over a priority for a certain standard of language. If the debates about fill that we keep having are any indication, database-y puzzles extend far beyond the weekends, and it’s worth considering whether the injury can be felt far beyond a few sticklers’ solving experiences.
I don’t want to essentialize identities here by making it seem like experimentation is inherently male and (thus) inherently alienating to women, of course. But, speaking frankly as a fledgling millennial constructor who’s a (non-Asian) minority: if there’s anything that made me slow to realize I might one day want to construct or even solve crosswords, it wasn’t so much a lack of access to the puzzles — my mom is an avid solver — as it was the language being used to make them.
Active recruitment, a la JASA perhaps (?), is necessary, and the work starts there. But I don’t think it’ll get far without more of an emphasis on language that makes certain demographics feel that the crossword, with all the slices of culture it encapsulates and all the priorities toward language it invokes, can be theirs, too.
Sorry for the long post.
I know nothing about constructing puzzles. But I appreciate the broader context of the discussion about gender disparities in any creative field. I’ve been watching that phenomenon in science, and sometimes I get asked to speak about it — something I struggle with since I don’t want to seem unhelpful but I don’t feel I fathom the underlying causes. So, I’m always interested in learning. But here’s an observation for what’s it’s worth:
In the life science labs, the ratios have changed dramatically over the last 3 decades. A typical neuroscience lab has gone from having an occasional woman trainee to having a majority of young women. So, the old idea that I grew up with, that said that the issue was isolation, low numbers, insufficient social support, has definitely gone by the way side. I currently have 3 pregnant women in the lab ( among others) and they definitely support each other (and I hope they think I’m very supportive of them). But women in science are still very stressed. Many feel anxious, excluded, under appreciated and there is scientific evidence showing that this is in fact the case…that it’s not a figment of their imagination. Many need to be reminded why they fell in love with science or they’re ready to bolt. Why? One possibility is that the women have not reached the top enough to modify the culture. Or maybe it will never happen. It feels like the system was set up not to specifically exclude women but it happens not to be congenial to many of them, and some core of it will not budge, or has greater survival capacity than one might expect based on gender numbers. Maybe it’s related to some of the features that Andy is discussing… Some trump others?
Anyhow, if there is some core issue that makes the system unattractive to women (or particular ethnic groups) an increase in their number only makes more people miserable. I imagine that when it’s a hobby, those people who don’t find the system congenial simply walk away.
Has anyone determined statistically if the ratio of male to female constructors has actually changed at the NYT over the last three or four decades? If you’ll forgive the pun, I haven’t a clue. The data exists now (thanks to the Preshortzian Project) to check this out with a pretty high degree of accuracy (I say “pretty high degree” because there a few cases in the older puzzles where the gender of the constructor is unknown).
Also, the widespread adoption of Crossword Compiler by the majority of constructors in my estimate, occurred around the turn of the millennium (again, this could be established more accurately if need be by polling current NYT constructors).
Comparing both sets of data should help give a much clearer idea of whether computers have made any difference to the male/female constructor ratio.
Why would data of this kind be fundamental, Martin? We are conditioned by a highly particular scientific paradigm to expect that producing the right set of numbers will yield objective answers to political questions.
Guess which philosophical wing has spent decades challenging this thinking? Women’s studies/queer studies.
The issue could not be more clearly illustrated than in the current situation. Analyzing constructor ratios gives us an extremely broad and poorly shaded picture of the history of women’s participation as constructors. We can riff off of this data as we prefer, perhaps deciding (hypothetically) that a 5% increase in female constructor rates under Will Shortz represents a 5% increase in inclusivity. If, however, we speak to actual women involved in puzzles (and I know because I’ve done this), we learn about longstanding patterns of discrimination, condescending attitudes, structural problems, strained relationships, unequal pay and unequal expectations for gendered roles within the ecology of crosswords, etc. Moreover, these issues are described with an urgency that suggests people want things to be different. There could be no harder evidence of a problem. The information (data!) we get from interviews and conversations is far richer and speaks to far more urgent problems than statistics are remotely capable of. I’m glad that David Steinberg is crunching the pre-Shortzian numbers and I am interested in the results, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that these numbers will settle the issue nor stand as objective evidence of anything.
I have a great deal of respect for David as an editor, constructor, and extraordinary young man. But it does trouble me that on stage at the most prominent crossword event in our world, with no formal occasion for rebuttal or open discussion, a white male teenager is the only person being given an opportunity to speak to the status of women in crosswords. The veneer of objectivity covers over the fact that identity and experience matter very much when it comes to inequality in our world.
Finally, I want to stress that in highlighting problems of inequality I *do not* mean to flag individuals as villains. This is unproductive, and I have every confidence that crossword folk are among the more tolerant and well-intentioned people I’ve ever known. The point is to bring certain tensions, which for a variety of reasons have been silenced, to the surface so that we can confront them and be more proactive going forward.
Ben, I think you may be reading too much into my post. I’m not disagreeing with you. However, do we know that the ratio of male to female constructors ( in the NYT) is significantly different now than it was, say 10, 20, 30 years ago? The actual data should be available now. I have a hunch that there may be more male constructors published today, However, I’d like to see the data before I could even begin to (inexpertly) conjecture as to the possible reason(s).
Just to be clear, I was only referring to myself when I used the adverb “inexpertly”.
I am a 62 year-old woman who had several puzzles published in the Times in the early 1980s, and many other puzzles published in various magazines such as Dell and Penny Press. I took up constructing as a hobby when I had a baby who slept all of the time and I wanted some mental stimulation. The very first puzzle I ever constructed was published by Eugene Maleska. Knowing nothing about constructing at all, I put the word “cancer” in the puzzle, and clued it as a sign of the zodiac rather than the disease. Mr. Maleska sent it back with the nicest, most encouraging letter you would ever want to receive. I reworked that corner of the puzzle, submitted it again, and it was accepted. I believe if he had sent back a curt rejection note, I might not have persevered. Every acceptance letter I ever received from him was so supportive that it encouraged me to continue constructing. I know that information isn’t germane to this topic, but he is so often perceived as an ogre that I wanted people to see he had a softer side. After my babies grew into toddlers I went back to work and that was the end of any spare time I might have to make puzzles, or in fact pursue any other hobby. I definitely think women tend to put themselves last during the busy years of raising children. I also want to say that in no way do the various blogs deter me from submitting puzzles now. I can take criticism as well as anyone. In fact, I am often more critical of the puzzles than the bloggers. Drives me crazy to see partials and over-used words in an easy corner to fill. Most times I can think of better choices is just a few minutes. Why don’t I take up puzzle-making again? I’m still working and caring for the older generation and ill family members, as are most of my friends who are in their sixties. Even when older, women tend to spend more time as caretakers than men do.
Susan: Maleska was very kind to me too. He accepted every puzzle I sent him, and he was always very encouraging. It wasn’t until the mid 90s, when I first got on-line and talked to other constructors that I realized what a fearsome reputation he actually had.
Eons ago (I started buying puzzle books about 1958) Dell puzzle publications occasionally profiled their constructors. Most were women, and most constructed puzzles in their spare time while the kids were at school. Virtually all the editors were women. Nowadays, looking at the Dell masthead, it’s more 50/50.
My impression is that male overrepresentation is more at the cutting edge (the top newspapers, etc.) than in the world of workaday puzzles that I suspect not many readers at this site spend much time in. The cutting edge requires a ridiculous level of time commitment and a high tolerance level for solitary activities. People with a life need not apply. Did someone say geek/nerd?
Kameron, stay tuned for a midday post on themelesses and women. For now, I’ll just mention that some top constructors don’t use databases and build their themelesses by hand: Quigley, Payne, Gaffney, Walden, to name a few.
In my case, “built.” I’ve written maybe three freestyles in the past 12 years. Gave it up when the silicon monsters took over!
Amy, I submit that the explanation of the ACPT population is quite simple. The one year I attended, I found it clubby and clique-y and pretty much a reunion of a group I did not belong to and was not being invited to join. Exactly one person introduced himself to me (Stan Newman). A person of color is likely to interpret that as possibly race-based snubbery and never come again. I realize it’s not that, but I’m never attending again either. The atmosphere would be different if a group of regulars took it upon themselves to meet greet and engage newbies.
I have found the atmosphere at NPL conventions quite different — folks go out of their way to introduce themselves.
I’ve only attended once (in 98), but I gotta say I found the whole atmosphere pretty friendly. However, having “strangers” recognize my name and being able to talk shop for a couple of days, was for me, a lot of fun.
I disagree that constructor publication ratios constitute “actual data,” any more than the concerns of active constructors, editors, and others in the community. I disagree that we need to establish these figures in order to establish a) that there is a problem in the first place and b) the precise extent of the problem (if there is one).
As I described in my earlier comment, there are a great many sites of inequity in crosswords beyond simple constructor ratios. The articulate concerns of experienced individuals should be the basis of this discussion, the thing that constitutes hard evidence of a problem.
Two questions I feel need to be answered adequately before the question Amy asked can be adequately answered:
1. Why do crossword constructors become crossword constructors? I think I’m in the minority that has been making at least freeform crosswords since I was about 7/8 years old. I also created mazes, wordsearches and goodness knows what else. These things are all symptoms of being a child who plays by himself rather than with other kids… There are others, I know Merl Reagle started young; I know BEQ is also on record as making mazes as a kid… But I get the feeling most people start at some point, for some reason, as adults.
2. Is the uptake the same and the attrition rate different (more women stop making crosswords) or is the genuinely less uptake? I think it’s a pertinent question, especially when one allegation has been a bias against “feminine” crossword themes… I must say that, if you look at the NYT for instance, the attrition rate, male or female, is very high. Most people contribute for around 3-4 years and stop.
I want to construct crosswords and what I need is an online course, preferably with “classmates”. I have read the books, I have downloaded the software, I have watched the videos, I have an initial idea or two – but hasn’t happened. I think a teacher, some structure/deadline, and some peers would be just the thing. And, yes, I’d pay. (That said, I’m typing this with one hand while feeding my 1 year old breakfast with the other, so there’s that, too.) I’ve done puzzles all my life, have no problem with tech, and think blog criticism is survivable, so those aren’t my issues, fwiw (data set of 1). Amy, thank you for asking!
I seem to be doing a lot of commenting today! @Kim: Why not mentoring? If you ask on cruciverb-l (you can sign up for free at cruciverb.com if you haven’t already) there are plenty of us that will happily volunteer our time to guiding your learning process…
Thanks for that invite, Gareth – I have been lurking there (and at non ACPT events) for a couple years, but needed the on ramp, I guess. Will post – and maybe that will flush out some other newbies, too.
> I also think it’s important to examine the underrepresentation of non-White, non-Asian constructors
> But, speaking frankly as a fledgling millennial constructor who’s a (non-Asian) minority…
On the contrary, I actually think that Asians are significantly underrepresented in crossword construction. Not as much as certain ethnicities, but it is still far lower than baseline metrics such as national demographics (Asian Americans are slightly less 6% of the U.S.) or other metrics you would expect to be correlated with a cerebral activity like crosswords that should skew the underrepresentation even further (e.g. Asian Americans are the most educated ethnic group in the country, see Wikipedia for more).
In contrast, when you look at the NYT constructors with more than ten puzzles, there are by my inspection only 5 Asians on the list: myself, Joon Pahk, Julian Lim, Jeff Chen, and Ashish Vengsarkar. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any other prolific Asian constructors aside from the up-and-coming C.C. Burnikel (whose ethnicity I am assuming based on her name and photo) and she is the only woman in this set. Overall that’s about 3% of prolific constructors. (I apologize if I’m forgetting anyone, it’s unintentional.)
> Every year when I go to the ACPT, I am struck anew by the prevailing whiteness-with-a-touch-of-Asianness of the crowd
Again, Asians are not as underrepresented as other minorities, but they still are compared to the metrics above. There are a couple high profile figures at the tournament like Joon and Jeff, but beyond them and a few other people I happened to notice, it really does seem quite limited.
As a side anecdote, every single year at the tournament I am regularly mistaken for either Joon or Jeff. Just this past weekend several different people congratulated me on my Jeopardy! performance (that was Joon, not me). I don’t think this would happen as often if the tournament were more diverse.
I mention all this because I would love to see more diversity of all kinds at the tournament and getting an accurate description who currently attends helps us think about these issues.
And Julian Lim is Asian, but not American (although he studied in the US):
Additional observation to follow up on Kevin’s note: I saw a photo from the ACPT judges’ dinner. Out of about 50 people (not necessarily the full group of officials and judges), I think 11 were women and 4 were non-white (all Asian or South Asian). All of the tournament officials are tremendously welcoming people, but people in underrepresented groups can certainly feel a tad less welcome in an environment where nobody in charge looks like them and hardly anyone around them looks like them.
My wife and I, discussing the lack of ethnic diversity at the ACPT, remarked on how few people of Asian descent there were compared to children’s academic events, such as the spelling and geography bees. Particularly of Indian descent–I think maybe 8 out of 10 finalists at the last bee I saw on TV were of Indian heritage. We hypothesized that perhaps this is because, although these competitions are highly encouraged for children, perhaps they are seen as time-wasting for successful, professional adults or college students.
Kevin, thank you for your perspective and experiences. I only get Andrew Ries and Jeffrey Harris mixed up (both white guys), but my household is half Asian.
There are more African-Americans and Latinos in the US than Asians, yet all I noted were Ade, Eleanor, and a spectator for one group and Ric, Christine, and their mom for the other. There were more than 6 Asians in the crowd, but I’m glad to have Kevin’s number crunching on percentages.
I’d love to start a nonprofit where we get puzzle books and maybe puzzle presentations into diverse schools with lots of low-income kids, just to spread puzzling through more of the population. Donated books by Trip and Helene and other folks with good children’s puzzles would be a terrific resource. Now that my son is soon heading to high school at another diverse school with even more nerds, I’m thinking a teenage approach would also be great. Get ’em when they are old enough to start constructing and light that fire, hook them up with mentoring. Who’s in?
More later this week on women, responding to David’s talk with my own thoughts and more from other women. Brief upshot: In past decades there were a lot more women making crosswords, and I disagree entirely with David’s hypothesis as to why that is.
Grateful to Ben Tausig for his terrific work as a feminist ally. The data tell you what’s been happening but can’t begin to hint at the reasons why.
It’s a very difficult issue to figure out. David Steinberg brought up some good points in his ACPT talk, but of course there must be a myriad of reasons.
Anecdotally, a (female, Caucasian) friend of mine desperately wants to get a crossword published. One reason she’s been dragging her feet is her fear of the software hurdle (I’ve offered to shepherd her through, but it’s a big mental block for her to overcome). Another is the time factor. Yet another is the fear of rejection; the possibility that someone authoritative would tell her that she’s not good enough. Finally, she reads both Rex and Fiend regularly and is deathly afraid of being torn to shreds.
I’d love to figure out the main root causes — ideally using some scientific analysis — and see what we can collectively do to tackle them.
I’m coming into this thread particularly late, but I am enjoying the discussion. After speaking with a couple of people at the ACPT following David’s talk I couldn’t help thinking of the following ideas: 1) Regardless of technological advances, crossword construction is, in my experience, a solitary, nerdy activity to get involved in. 2) Building a little off of what Ben said, from a very early age, I think that females face different social pressures than males do — about how they look, how they socialize and interact with others, how well they do in school — and these things probably contribute to social inequities that include and go far beyond the crossword world.
I don’t want to presume that I know the answers to this difficult question, but I really wonder if women feel there is a particular stigma to getting heavily involved in solitary, nerdy activities like crosswords that men typically may not encounter. It’s possible that, for whatever reasons that women are underrepresented in crosswords, the same reasons may help explain why they’re similarly underrepresented in other solitary, nerdy activities like fantasy football, online gaming, or comic book conventions. It’s not that women can’t be as nerdy as men in these endeavors. I just get the feeling that our culture does its part to discourage women from doing them.
Perhaps, as others have suggested, if constructors took a more active role to mentoring puzzlers at an early age, then building crosswords could become more of a diverse, inclusive project. I should add that I agree with Ben that if we’re to have a real conversation about this issue, then there needs to be greater emphasis on the crossword experience from women themselves. Maybe there can be a lecture panel of women constructors at next year’s ACPT about this?
I haven’t really seen the topic of mentors yet and I think having a great one is critical for any new constructor. Nancy Salomon was my mentor for a couple years and it really helped me get started. Today there are some mentors actively helping first timers, but I’m not aware of any women ones (at least based on my reading of the blogs or cruciverb list). If true, I wonder if this is a recent factor for the gender gap as well.