Why Hasn't A Woman Run The New York Times Styles Section In Decades?

The paper's latest hire, Choire Sicha, draws high praise. But inescapably gendered criticisms have always dogged the section.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

The New York Times just hired yet another man to run the Styles section.

Choire Sicha, most recently of Vox Media, will replace Stuart Emmrich, who ran Styles for seven years. Sicha will become the fourth white man to run the section since Adam Moss and founding editor Stephen Drucker launched it in 1992.

A veteran digital journalist ― he co-founded The Awl and was an early Gawker editor ― Sicha, 45, brings a much-needed edginess and internet sensibility to the Times. He beat out one outsider female candidate, Time Inc’s Lori Leibovich, and male Times veteran, Jim Windolf, in a months-long interview process. (An editor at New York magazine, Stella Bugbee, was reportedly offered the job but turned it down.) All the finalists were white.

Sicha’s hire was met with universal praise from obsessive Times observers. Yet, as the publication continues to face criticism over the way it covers gender and race, particularly in Styles, it’s worth asking: Why did editors hire another white guy to run the section?

“I don’t think you can look at any single hire and conclude there is a gender or race problem because of who was chosen,” Liz Spayd, a former public editor at the Times, told HuffPost. “The concern is when you see patterns ― like when time after time white men get the job.”

A post shared by Choire Sicha (@choiresicha) on

Styles isn’t simply about fashion, as the name implies. The idea is to cover culture (minus arts and entertainment, for the most part). What gets to be considered “culture” depends on one’s point of view and social standing. The section is notorious for its outsize focus on the lifestyles of young, urbane rich people and for pieces on dubious trends ― like monocles, or women dying their armpit hair. A piece published Thursday focused on young professional men who wear shorts to work.

The Styles section most often finds itself treading in the deep end when it covers women. Recently, a couple of profiles caught flak for what critics viewed as sexist framing. Readers pay close attention to how women are covered ― and why they seem to often land in a section ostensibly devoted to fashion and beauty.

It’s unclear how Sicha, who’s known for biting cultural commentary, will tackle any of this. He told HuffPost that the Times wouldn’t let him talk about his plans. There’s no question, however, that he hails from the same demographic as his predecessors: a string of middle-aged white men.

Of all the sections of the Times, it would seem like Styles would be the one where women or people of color would flourish as leaders. It was born out of the paper’s women’s pages and coverage of society and homes. Over the years, it has covered feminist issues and high-profile women of all races.

Sunday Styles even still runs wedding announcements, classically derided as the sports pages for women.

The problem is: Styles suffers from the same kind of double bind that many women face in the work world. They’re criticized as being weak if they conform to a feminine stereotype, but they’re labeled bitchy if they embody the more stereotypically male traits ― assertiveness, confidence ― associated with leadership.

Styles’ pieces fall into the same trap. They’re slammed as frivolous or fluffy and unworthy of the Times’ attention. (Light pieces in other sections ― like Corner Office in Business Day, for example ― rarely catch as much heat.)

The section has featured a lot of coverage of gay culture and politics over the years and has been led by a number of gay men. It has suffered through some truly offensive, homophobic criticism because of this. A decade ago, Gawker regularly posted a feature called Thursgay Styles. (This was well after Sicha, who is gay, had left the site.)

“Someone significant in business or politics ends up being profiled in the style section, and if she’s a woman you see outrage. This probably happens every few months.”

- Kimberly Voss, associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida

When the section’s writers take on weighty topics ― depression and anxiety on college campuses, or high-profile newsmakers ― readers complain that those pieces don’t belong in the section.

“It’s insulting,” said Jacqui Shine, who wrote an exhaustive history of Styles in 2014 for The Awl ― which Sicha edited ― and recently spoke with HuffPost by phone. “It’s somehow considered a lightweight section, and therefore there’s a belief that certain substantial subjects should be off limits.”

Shine said that even the notion that Styles is a “women’s section” is misogynistic. But the perception that it is for ladies seems intractable. It didn’t help when the paper launched Men’s Style in 2015, essentially a tacit acknowledgement that the original Styles is meant to be read by women.

Some female journalists have tried to avoid working for style sections at various papers lest they get lumped into essentially what’s been stigmatized as a pink ghetto, according to Shine. Having a male editor, then, is one way to push back against that critique, she said.

Most recently, Styles editor Alexandra Jacobs defended the section against accusations that a profile of Uber executive Bozoma St. John was misplaced.

“All the Uber stories that preceded it were in the business section,” one reader wrote to the editors in the paper’s new Reader Center. “Shame on the NYT for relegating the story about the woman to the Styles section.”

Jacobs, who edited the piece, explained that it ran in Styles because a writer pitched it for that section. That’s typically why certain pieces wind up there: Reporters who staff the section come up with ideas. It’s hardly a nefarious plot to keep women’s coverage confined in one place.

Yet, the “why is this in Styles?” trope persists. And the Times is hardly the only paper facing that criticism. The Washington Post, which renamed its women’s section as Style decades ago, faces similar complaints.

“Someone significant in business or politics ends up being profiled in the style section, and if she’s a woman you see outrage,” Kimberly Voss, associate professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida, told HuffPost. “This probably happens every few months.”

Voss said pieces are sometimes better off running in the Styles section, rather than the front page, because there might be better art and more space for a story.

Crucially, the question of why certain pieces end up in certain sections also matters less in 2017, when most readers come to stories digitally ― often through Facebook ― and may not even know what paper content hails from.

“Lifestyle” might actually be a more accurate title for the Styles section, Jessica Bennett, a Styles contributor, suggested in another back-and-forth in the Times’ Reader Center in June. She was responding to a reader who wanted to know why a piece she’d written about university women struggling with setbacks had appeared in the section.

Sometimes there are legitimate issues with the way stories about women are framed, though. But that’s a problem throughout the Times, still a paper dominated by men. (That is something the Times is working on at the highest levels. The paper hired veteran editor Ellen Pollack, most recently of Businessweek, in April to run its business coverage, and Wall Street Journal masthead editor Rebecca Blumenstein took a very senior position at the paper in February.)

This summer, the headline of a profile of NBC News correspondent Katy Tur came up for criticism: “Katy Tur Is Tougher Than She Looks” was swiftly called out for essentially suggesting that a tough journalist must look a certain way. The second headline the Times put on the piece ― “Katy Tur’s Swift and Surprising Rise” ― met the same fate, with critics asking why exactly her rise was so surprising.

The paper finally landed on “You Can’t Rattle Her: Katy Tur On The Rise.”

The profile of Uber’s St. John wasn’t just called out for the cliched “why is this in Styles” criticism. Quartz argued that the piece failed to closely examine her work history and plans for the ride-sharing company now embroiled in a PR disaster, in part, over the way it has treated women.

“Would the Times have profiled Uber’s first-ever chief brand officer in the Styles section, with an emphasis on that person’s Instagram, if a man held the position?” Quartz’s Allison Griswold asked. She noted that a similar profile in Styles of male executive offered far more professional details than the piece on St. John, which featured pictures from her Instagram, including one of her in a bikini.

St. John didn’t seem to mind. “I’m thankful for the incredible talent of [Times contributor] @sheilaym who has told my story so well,” she wrote on Instagram.

When HuffPost emailed The New York Times to ask if a woman had ever run Styles, spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha pointed to a 1978 article about a woman who’d been hired to oversee the paper’s Living Styles section. That was 39 years ago. When Jimmy Carter was president.

A few days later, after being asked again, Rhoades-Ha said Penelope Green, who had been deputy to founding editor Drucker, ran the section from mid-1992 to 1994 ― right before Styles was killed and folded into the Metro section. When it re-emerged as a standalone section in 1997, a man named Trip Gabriel was in charge. Rhoades-Ha pointed out that three women ― Barbara Graustark, Danielle Mattoon and Mary Suh ― had been deputies to the section at various points.

Jill Abramson, the paper's first and only female executive editor, told HuffPost in an email that “the strategic thinking of women editors is all over the [Sunday and Thursday Styles] sections. Styles isn’t a pink ghetto. It’s the repository of great profile writing, on men, too.”

It’s also not clear how many women or people of color applied to be Styles editor. But we do know that three male editors made the decision.

Executive editor Dean Baquet, the first African-American to hold that powerful role, and managing editor Joe Kahn wrote in an email to staff that they had interviewed “dozens” of candidates. They didn’t hold back on either their approbation for Sicha (“one of the finest features editors of his generation”) or the role he’s taking on (“one of the most important features jobs in American journalism”). Sam Sifton, the paper’s food editor, was also involved in deciding to hire Sicha.

If anyone minded that Sicha was yet another male hire in Styles, chosen by men, they kept it to themselves.

“I love to see women ascending to any top editorial role, of course,” Margaret Sullivan, another former New York Times public editor, told HuffPost. “But this looks like a brilliant hire to me.” Sullivan now writes a respected and well-read media column for The Washington Post.

Her work appears in that paper’s Style section.

Shine, who is now finishing a Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Berkeley, said she doesn’t think having another man editing the section is necessarily a problem and that Sicha is definitely up for the challenge. Sicha won’t be bothered by the perception that Styles is a lightweight section, she said.

In a 2014 interview with Full Stop, Sicha seemed to make a similar point. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing being insignificant,” he said. “My best work is ephemeral, and was published on websites that don’t exist any more.”

Sicha understands the section and the way it’s viewed, Shine added. After all, he’s deeply familiar with its history after editing her 11,000-word piece on it. He has gained a reputation as a smart, funny and cutting cultural critic ― particularly of the kind of elite New York circles that Styles tends to dine out on and of the overbearing, always-on internet environment of 2017.

His Instagram feed is packed with whimsical cat imagery.

“Fending off these criticisms all the time has meant there’s a lot of anxiety for the writers,” Shine said. “Choire will have no patience with that.”

He starts on Sept. 5.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community