Are female freelance writers systematically paid less than men at Good Weekend, the iconic magazine picked up by an estimated 1.4 million Sydney Morning Herald and Saturday Age readers each weekend?

It’s a debate John van Tiggelen, the editor of The Monthly, has ignited via a brutal email missive to Good Weekend rival Ben Naparstek. The email — in case you haven’t read by now — is a zinger, with accusations of stolen ideas, poached writers and falling standards. But the following paragraph has caught the most attention:

“Within my first weeks in the job, contributors to the Monthly were letting me know you were offering them $1.50 a word. I kept a list; within a month there were eight on it. Interestingly, they were all male. Yet you denied this, both to me and publicly (to The Australian). You were lying, but you had to, as you were simultaneously insisting to other writers (who, interestingly, were all female) that 80 cents a word was as high as you could go.”

When she read this, freelance journalist Lisa Pryor was not impressed. The Good Weekend regular tells Crikey she will be asking Naparstek to increase the $1-a-word rate she has been paid for GW pieces. If he doesn’t agree, she says she will take her stories elsewhere.

“Ben is lovely and I consider him a friend, but I won’t write for less than other people,” she said. “I’m going to back myself to get paid more than $1.”

Pryor, a former opinion page editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, says she knows cash-strapped publications cannot pay all writers the same rate. But she is concerned the freelancing game tends to disadvantage women – who she says tend to be less egotistical than men – and blokes who are less confident about standing up for themselves.

“Now I’m going to be arrogant and start demanding to get paid more,” she said, hoping the brouhaha will encourage female freelancers to push for more money when negotiating pay rates.

Influential feminist group Destroy the Joint — which co-ordinated the advertiser boycott against Alan Jones last year — has also joined the fray by encouraging its 25,000 followers to email Naparstek and demand equal pay for equal work.

Amid the outrage, it’s important to remember the evidence of systematic s-xism at Good Weekend is contested and far from clear-cut. One male writer, who has written for Good Weekend, is adamant there is no “strict gender divide” among the writers. “I know of at least one female writer who is definitely paid more [than me],” he said.

Fairfax editorial director Garry Linnell dismisses the charge of s-xism as “absolute nonsense”. Naparstek declined Crikey‘s requests for comment, but has said the pay rates in van Tiggelen’s email are not correct.

Former Crikey journalist Paul Barry, who has written regularly for Good Weekend, disputes van Tiggelen’s argument that Naparstek is a “fucking dalek” who does not have his own ideas.

Barry says Naparstek suggested detailed profiles of Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest well ahead of the rest of the media pack.

“He has had ideas that I thought were good at the time then three months later I’ve realised they were fantastic ideas and regretted I didn’t do them.”

He also says he’d be extremely surprised if female writers such as Jane Wheatley are paid less than men. Barry says Good Weekend pays him more than $1 a word (the standard rate offered by The Monthly) but less than $2.

Like Pryor, freelance writer Rachel Hills is giving Naparstek the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deliberate underpaying. But she thinks the stoush raises important questions about invisible sexism in journalism and publishing.

“I don’t think that paying different contributors different rates is a bad thing,” Hills told Crikey from London. “Every publication I write for does it, and I think that it is good to reward experience, talent and hard work. A reported think piece, for instance, takes much more time to produce than an opinion piece of the same length. And if the reports about Naparstek offering male contributors more money than female contributors are true, I doubt that is a deliberate act on his part. He probably genuinely believes he paying according to merit and market value.

“But it also strikes me as highly unlikely that the male contributors to The Monthly/Good Weekend are all more talented and experienced than the female contributors. So while it may not be a deliberate act of sexism, if it is true, it does reflect an unconscious bias. But unconscious bias is still problematic and symptomatic of a broader devaluation of women’s writing and of the issues women write about.”

As well debate about sexism in the media and freelance pay rates, van Tiggelen’s email has also provoked discussion about the editorial direction of Good Weekend. The magazine is increasingly reliant on freelance copy and book extracts following the departure of four of its six full-time staffers in last year’s redundancy round.

John van Tiggelen told Crikey this morning: “I don’t have a comment to make other than that Ben and I talked yesterday, we’re as happy as Kevin and Julia and everyone else should have a long cold shower.”