RRJ logo

It is 4 p.m. on Tuesday, September 18, 2007, in the Queen Street East offices of St. Joseph Media. The fourth-floor kitchen is crowded with Toronto Life magazine staffers who sip Trius Brut sparkling wine and nibble on cheese while Sharon McAuley, the magazine’s publisher, gives a speech. They should be at their Macs working on the November “power” issue, but the book can wait. It’s time to celebrate.

This is Sarah Fulford’s party. Fulford is 33 years old, a mother of one (and, yes, daughter of ) and, it has just been announced, the new editor of Toronto Life as of January. She is replacing John Macfarlane, who has held the top spot for the past 15 years. Fulford, who has worked there since 1999, most recently as senior editor, is also the first female editor in Toronto Life’s 40-plus year history.

Her first meeting with McAuley was in the plush women’s club Verity, located just two floors down from the magazine’s offices. During the appointment process, however, the fact that Fulford would be the first woman to edit Toronto Life never came up. It was only discussed after the decision was made, and then it was, as Macfarlane remembers, “Oh, by the way, she’s the first woman.” Fulford admits that the thought may have crossed her mind, but that it didn’t seem significant enough to include in the press release.When her appointment was made public, her gender got a lot more attention than she anticipated. “I expected the conversation to be about my age,” she says, “or being Bob Fulford’s daughter.” To her surprise, she received several congratulatory emails and phone calls of the “good going, sister” kind from female journalists, mostly from the boomer generation. One such well-wisher was Sandra Martin, a senior features writer at The Globe and Mail. Martin, a long-time freelancer who has written for Toronto LifeSaturday Night, and Maclean’samong other titles, fired off an email after receiving a note announcing Fulford’s appointment. “Having you named as the editor of TL gives me such pleasure,” she wrote. “I think of all the strong female editors (Anne Collins, for one) who must be cheering that you have broken through the gender barrier.” (Collins was famously passed over by Conrad Black for the editorship of Saturday Night in favour of Ken Whyte in 1994. Today, she’s the highly respected publisher of Random House Canada. For her, the Saturday Night episode was just too long ago to dredge up now.)

Martin is less reticent. “I would like to see more women in top editorial jobs at magazines, and I’ll tell you why: because I enjoy women’s perspectives,” she says. “I like the way women tend to be more left-brained and that they look at things in a slightly different way.They often want the story behind the story.”

Martin cites Doris Anderson’s years at Chatelaine as an example. “All of those topics that were in Chatelainethat were not recipes, like abortion and mental health—issues that are really important to women’s health—made it a really important magazine, and it caused a fuss on Parliament Hill.”

Anderson recorded her long, and perpetually unsuccessful, relationship with Maclean’s in her 1996 autobiography, Rebel Daughter. By 1969, she had been editor of Chatelaine, Maclean Hunter’s “money-maker,” for 12 years and decided to pursue the editorship of Maclean’s. Instead, she was passed over for the position three times in just over two years: first for Peter Gzowski, then for former managing editor Phil Sykes and finally for Peter C. Newman. “I have always been the backup—after every other male in Canada who can read or write has been asked,” she remarked before Newman’s appointment. Anderson was told that management was concerned that she couldn’t represent the company publicly, even though she had been the face of Chatelaine for over a decade. Or internally: before Sykes was appointed, half the predominantly male staff threatened to walk out if she was named editor.

Almost 40 years later, there has yet to be a female editor of Maclean’s, the country’s oldest active magazine (launched in 1905), and arguably one of its most influential. During its 118-year span (1887 to 2005), the iconic Saturday Night had 17 editors; just one, Dianna Symonds, was female. Vancouver magazine, as high profile on the West Coast as Toronto Life is in, well, Toronto, has never had a woman at the top of the masthead. The Walrus has had three editors—all men.Not surprisingly, since Webster family money helps fund Maisonneuve (the six-year-old self-described “New Yorker for a younger generation”), its sole editor has been Derek Webster. Reader’s Digest Canada, the largest circulation “Canadian” magazine, has only had two female editors during its 60-plus years in the country. Report on Business Magazine (ROB) was home to two female editors, Margaret Wente, and more recently, Patricia Best, who left eight years ago. Canadian Business also had a pair of female editors, Wente and Joann Webb, who left in 1988. (Webb also editedHarrowsmith—now a shelter book called Harrowsmith Country Life—for one year in the 1980s.) Canadian Geographic, now 78 years old, has never had a female editor. The trend was the same fornowdead but still highly regarded general or special-interest titles: EquinoxShift and Quest.

On the other hand, women’s magazines and fashion and shelter books have been led almost exclusively by female editors. Today, these magazines make up the majority of the Canadian magazine landscape. According to Masthead magazine’s 2007 list of the 50 highest-earning Canadian magazines, Chatelaine has been the top grossing title since it pushed past Maclean’s in 2001. (Maclean’s, of course, has a higher frequency—48 issues a year compared to Chatelaine’s 13.) Women’s magazines, as well as fashion, shopping and shelter books make up nearly half of the list, but despite their strong financial showing, women’s magazines suffer from an image problem. Anne Kingston, currently a senior writer for Maclean’s, explains that magazines read by a broader audience are “far more influential and part of the public discussion, the way women’s magazines aren’t.”

Sure, the days of every magazine of any prominence or size being headed by a man—even women’s magazines— are now old news. So is the time when editorial mastheads read like the membership list of a men’s club. Today, there are so many women on the editorial side in magazine publishing that the job category is nearly a pink-collar ghetto. Female respondents to Masthead’s 2007 annual salary survey far outnumber the men: of a total 572 respondents, 65 per cent were women. Not surprising when you consider the number of women graduating from Canadian journalism schools. Take Ryerson University’s 2008 graduating magazine class: of a total 22 students, only two are men. All 10 students on the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s Spring 2008 masthead are women. So what if some of these women aspire to being top editor at something other than a women’s magazine or a shelter book?

Students aren’t the only ones wondering how far they can go. Jessica Johnston, 32, is currently editor of This Magazine, which over its 40-year history has become away station for talented young editors. Since the magazine switched from a collective editorial to a single editor model in the early 1990s, all the editors have been female but one. “I’d like to think about moving up but I don’t really see that there’s anywhere to move up.

There’s no logical next step,” she says. Johnston has started to notice the lack of women in the top spots. “The gender divide is kind of obvious. The women’s magazines have female editors and the more current affairs-y magazines, politically oriented magazines, have male editors. The gender stereotypes are alive and well in the top positions.” Johnston also recounts a story about perceptions reminiscent of Doris Anderson’s day. During Christmas 2006, Johnston was attending a party for the tenants of 401 Richmond Street, the building that houses This Magazine’s office, and found herself chatting with an architect whose office was also located in the building.When Johnston mentioned that she was the editor of This, the architect replied: “Oh yeah, I see your boss,” he said. “That older grey-haired gentleman.” Johnston, whose sole colleague is female publisher Lisa Whittington-Hill, was perplexed. It was only later that she realized he was, in fact, referring to visual artist John Scott. “This guy couldn’t relate to the fact that a magazine was run by two women,” says Johnston. “He had to assume that our artist neighbour, who is male and has grey hair, is actually the person who’s in charge down here, which kind of blew my mind.”

Penny Williams became familiar with this kind of gender stereotyping during her time as editor of personal finance magazine Your Money, published between 1984 and 1988. In 1984, her first year at the helm, Williams received a letter in neat handwriting, but peppered with exclamation marks. The gentleman who had penned the letter signed his name followed by a “P. Eng,” for professional engineer. Williams recalls the letter: “He wasn’t going to subscribe to any finance magazine edited by women. Women couldn’t edit a financial magazine,” she says. “Until we got a proper editor—a male editor—count him out.” With “great glee,” Williams promptly posted the letter on the office bulletin board.

When Fulford’s appointment was announced, some of the buzz in the biz focused on Angie Gardos, Toronto Life’s long-time and highly regarded executive editor. The speculation was that she’d been passed over. In fact, she hadn’t wanted the opportunity and was content with her new boss. Gardos wasn’t interested in the business side of the position and would rather work with writers and stories. The only carrot was the pay increase, and she says, “I’ve never made a decision based on money in choosing my career path.”

Sarah Murdoch can relate. A former Toronto Life staff member, Murdoch has spent the last 17 years as a newspaper features editor, first at the Globe and now at the National Post. “In all of my jobs I’ve been very close with writers and dealing with copy. If I’d been the editor-in-chief at any of the magazines I worked at, I wouldn’t be able to do that as much,” she says. “It’s dealing with all of the worst parts of working at magazines—advertisers first of all, then the advertising department, then the circulation department. It’s not got much to do with the editing part.”

Barbara Moon started at Maclean’s in 1948, opening the mail and getting coffee for the editors, and worked her way up to become a respected writer and editor at titles such as the Globe and Saturday Night. Moon herself was never interested in the editor position at Saturday Night. She has a theory: “There’s a strong or at least arguable possibility that women were too smart to take the top jobs.” Moon goes on to say, “When you get out of the world of editorial, which is rich and fulfilling and different every day and marvellous, and into the world of dealing with the publishers, dealing with marketing, dealing with advertisers—it’s all the grunge part of the job.”

Or maybe they’re just too busy. Dianna Symonds, now a managing editor at Maclean’s, was editor ofSaturday Night from 2000 to 2001, just after the magazine’s transition from a monthly to a weekly. When Conrad Black called to offer her the job, Symonds, who had two children (then aged seven and 12), had reservations. With no extended family in the city, she was already relying on her husband, daycare and eventually a full-time care giver. “There are points at which it just all starts to fall apart,” she recalls of her experience. “You wonder, what am I doing and who’s paying the price here? Is this fair?”

Not much has changed, says Johnston. “We still don’t have a hospitable work environment for women in terms of having families and children,” she says. “I’d like to talk about this with Sarah Fulford, actually, because I think about this as a young women editor who would like to have a family. How’s that going to work?”

It’s working out beautifully, says Fulford. “My husband’s work schedule is flexible and I have a lot of family willing to help out,” she says. “But without a tremendous support system a parent can’t do a great job at the office.”

According to Gertrude Robinson, the majority of female journalists are opting not to have children. Robinson is the author of Gender, Journalism and Equity: Canadian, U.S. and European Experiences, the first Canadian study that explored comparative data from female journalists in 1975 and in 1995 in Canada, the United States and Europe. Robinson’s 2005 study shows that only 65 per cent of women in newspaper and broadcast newsrooms live with a partner (compared to 85 per cent of men) and 59 per cent have no children (31 per cent of men). “The long hours make it impossible and women have to make existential decisions as to whether they can afford to be married, as to whether they can afford to have children,” she says. “Of course, guys do not have to do that. They have wives who hold up the homefront while they are away.”

Wente, for one, never had children. “I could work10 hours a day. I didn’t have to worry about who was going to pick the kids up from daycare,” she explains. Nevertheless, Wente, who joined the Globe in 1992, turned down the Maclean’s editorship before Anthony Wilson-Smith took the job in 2001. Why? “You’re looking at all sorts of other issues about the extent to which you want to trade your life off for power and position and prestige.”

In her December 8, 2007 column, “Why do Men Still Rule the World?” Wente argues men are more willing to make that trade, citing what Newsweek has dubbed “the jerk gene.” “Recent brain scans done on men show that they are genetically wired to win at all costs,” she observed. “Without sinking into gender essentialism, it’s pretty obvious that men are drawn to dominance hierarchies. They pour a pile of energy and ambition into getting to the top. They’ll pay a heavy price to gain and preserve their status (and will also be richly rewarded if they succeed). This kind of power matters less to women.”

The question remains: does the gender of a magazine’s editor really matter? Kingston remembers picking up Wente’s ROB in the late ’80s.Kingston later became a staffer and also contributed to the magazine as a freelancer. Ironically, one of her stories was entitled, “Why Women Can’t Get Ahead.” (“Women comprise just over half of Canada’s population and nearly half—46.6per cent—of its workforce, yet their presence is virtually non-existent on the upper rungs of power. Progress has been glacial—at the current pace, female representation in the executive suite will not reach 20 percent until 2046.”) She notes that under Wente, the magazine carried more social commentary. “She understood the social nexus, and maybe this is where being a woman and sort of out of the boys’ club allowed her to bring a fresh perspective.”

Wente agrees. “I definitely had a different editing perspective than a male editor probably would have had,” she says. “I didn’t try to run a feminist magazine, but I was always looking for women and other interesting people to write about who were not necessarily white men in suits.” Under Wente, the book, whose readership was mostly men, ran more stories about women and once featured a cover shot of a 1950s housewife vacuuming in a dress, with the cover line, “My, How Things Have Changed.” The publisher warned her not to do that again. Wente was unrepentant.

“Really, there’s nothing more boring than a man in a suit,” she says. “So the whole idea is how to get that man out of the suit.” In 1987,Wente did that literally, running an infamous photo of men’s clothier Harry Rosen posing in nothing but a strategically placed tie.

On the flip side, do more men edit non-women’s magazines because more men read general interest, current affairs and business magazines? The rate cards for some Canadian general interest and current affairs magazines suggest otherwise. Currently, the majority of Toronto Life’s (53 per cent) and Reader’s Digest Canada’s (56 per cent) readers are women. Maclean’s and Vancouver magazine both report a near even split: 51 per cent male, 49 per cent female. Until Fulford’s appointment, only Reader’s Digest Canada had had a female editor. The Walrus sits near the middle with a 38 per cent female readership. The business magazines attract the lowest number of female readers: 27 per cent for Report on Business Magazine, 29 per cent for Canadian Business and 30 per cent for Financial Post Business.

So what’s a female editor-in-waiting to do? In 2004, Ryerson journalism grads Melinda Mattos and Nicole Cohen launched Shameless magazine, a feminist magazine “For Girls Who Get It,” to fill the void left by other teen magazines. Mattos, currently special sections and copy editor at Eye Weekly, was surprised by who was actually reading Shameless. “A lot of our readers are women who are in their 20s or 30s who are reading it because they didn’t get it at the time and they’re not getting it anywhere else now,” she says. The “it” being politics, art and culture in the pages of a women’s magazine.

Mattos, who resigned as co-editor of Shameless (along with Cohen) in summer of 2007 after feeling burnt out from balancing full-time work and editing the magazine, would love to edit another magazine but can’t see herself at a women’s book. “There are very few magazines that I’m chomping at the bit to work at,” she says. “Ideally, I would like it to be something that’s sort of socially relevant or political in some way.”

For Kingston, more important than women not getting the top spots at influential magazines is the fact that people are afraid to discuss it. “Maybe some people sincerely believe that we’re beyond this,” she says. “But clearly, we’re having this conversation, so we’re not.”

Macfarlane disagrees. “I haven’t witnessed, in the years that I’ve been in magazines, women bumping into a glass ceiling,” he says. “Maybe that happens in other professions, but I don’t think it happens in this one.” Over the past 37 years, he has worked at titles such as Maclean’sWeekendSaturday Night, the Financial Times of Canada and Toronto Life (twice) in roles ranging from executive editor to publisher. What he hasn’t done is work under a female editor. He did, however, play a key role in choosing his successor.

Macfarlane refutes the notion that qualified women have been passed over for the top position. Twenty-five years ago Macfarlane flew to Halifax to speak to a gathering of local writers. He says they were sure they were being passed up for big assignments at magazines such as Maclean’s because they were from the East Coast, not (as Macfarlane maintains) because they were mediocre writers. “So it’s easy if you’re not any good to convince yourself that the reason you’re not succeeding is not because you’re not very good,” he says, “it’s because you’re from Halifax, or you’re not part of whatever the majority is, you’re not white and you’re not male.”

Robinson takes issue with that analysis. “Guys don’t have any problems because the power system is tilted in their favour,” she says. “You can completely ignore the issue and say it’s in someone else’s head.” Johnston agrees. “It’s easier to say that there are no barriers when you’ve either not had as many barriers or you’ve hurdled them. It’s a pretty easy place to stand,” she says. Although Johnston is currently the editor of a national magazine, she has yet to attempt to make it to the top at a mainstream magazine. “Talk to me in five years when I’ve tried to make a leap into a higher editorial position and I might have a different perspective for you,” she says. “Maybe I’ll have some more embittering anecdotes.” Mattos echoes Johnston’s sentiments. “I’m sure the glass ceiling is there but I haven’t hit it,” she says. At the same time, she allows herself to dream that the ceiling may disappear sometime soon. When she was at Ryerson, there were four men in her 34-member graduating year magazine class. “I’m hoping that those numbers will translate. Give it a couple of years and we’ll be running things is, I guess, the hope.”

(Visited 328 times, 1 visits today)

About the author

Rebecca Rose was the Production Editor for the Spring 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest stories from our newsroom.