New York Times’ Kristof: To get social issues on the agenda, get them on the op-ed pages

When Nicholas Kristof travels the country giving talks, the first two questions he gets from the audience almost always come from men.

“This is true even at a women’s college, where 90 percent of the audience is female,” the New York Times columnist told me in a phone interview. “Some random boyfriend who’s been dragged in will raise his hand and ask the first question.”

Other times, there’s ambiguity about who Kristof has called on. When he points to a woman in the audience, the women usually look around, uncertain as to whether they’ve been called on. The men sitting nearby will often assume Kristof called on them and speak right up.

This plays out in opinion pages, too. New York Times columnist Gail Collins said she’s found that women are much less likely than men to submit opinion pieces. As the Times’ first female editorial page editor, Collins helped initiate discussions about how to get more female contributors and continues to advocate for this.

“One thing that’s been consistently true is that women don’t put their hands up as often as men,” she told me in a recent interview.

Kristof, who has been at the Times since 1984, said there’s been a “stunning improvement” in the number of women who have become reporters and editors at the Times. But there hasn’t been nearly as great an improvement in the Times’ opinion section — partly because women aren’t speaking up in the first place.

Kristof raised this issue on Facebook recently, following a story I wrote about the lack of women who contribute to opinion pages. The Facebook post, and a follow-up update, generated hundreds of responses from men and (mostly) women. Many shared a similar sentiment — that women who pontificate are considered “shrill,” while men who pontificate are considered “passionate.”

Benefits of having women in leadership positions

Having more women in leadership positions in recent years, Kristof pointed out, has helped amplify women’s voices.

Hillary Clinton, for example, “has really systematically tried to raise the issues of women in her travels,” he said. “The fact that you would have had a Secretary of State who in her travels meets women activists and meets women who have been trafficked would have been unthinkable 15 years ago.”

New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, left, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon take part in a news conference on Nov. 4, 2010. (Henny Ray Abrams/AP)

Clinton, he went on to say, recently met with a young Cambodian woman who had her eye gouged out by a brothel owner. Kristof, who had written about the girl, said that Clinton’s visit helped show middle-class Cambodians how rampant abuse is in the country’s brothels.

But not all female leaders bring light to the issues affecting women. This is largely true in countries such as India, where there’s a heavy emphasis on class. Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn found that when writing “Half the Sky,” women who were at the bottom of the social ladder tended to be the most oppressed. And they had few, if any, people to advocate for them.

“We found that having a woman as a president or prime minister didn’t seem to make any real difference in terms of issues of concern to women, like maternal health and girls attending schools. Frankly, there are a lot of women from elite circles who have little compassion or interest in women at the bottom of the ladder, ” Kristof said.

“Likewise, women journalists in places like India often identify more with their class than with their gender, so the issues affecting women at the bottom of the ladder may not be on the top of their personal agenda.”

In some countries, women won’t tell anyone about their struggles with genital mutilation or other violations because they’re told these topics are too taboo to discuss, and because they’re afraid of what might happen if they were to speak up. As a result, issues such as sex trafficking and maternal health are largely ignored.

“Far more women will die in Afghanistan in childbirth than people will be killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and yet reproductive health is never on the radar screen,” Kristof said. “If one is going to try to figure out how to get human trafficking, maternal health and domestic violence on the radar screen in India or Cambodia, I think part of the answer is to have more women in journalism as well as in politics.”

Providing women with opportunities to strengthen their voices

Some countries are trying to make it easier for women to have a voice in the public discourse, including those who are of a lower class. Uganda, for instance, has reserved Parliamentary seats for women, and India has required that one-third of its village chiefs be women.

“I think that was one of the most rigorous examinations of having women at the grassroots,” Kristof said of India’s quota system. “If you look at most political grassroots efforts, they’re disproportionately male-run.”

There are also efforts to provide women with greater access to mobile technology. Giving women the ability to communicate using phones allows them to literally use their voice and “is transformative in terms of making their lives richer,” Kristof said.

The U.S. State Department recently created its first all-women technology delegation, which traveled to Liberia and Sierra Leone last week to increase females’ access to mobile phones there.

And in the U.S., there are efforts to help more women voice their opinions. The Op-Ed Project, for instance, runs a national mentoring program in which female subject-matter experts are matched with senior-level media folks who encourage them to cultivate and share their ideas with the public.

Men can help, too

Kristof explained that men can play a key role in helping more women participate in the public discourse — and in drawing attention to the issue.

After he wrote “Half the Sky,” Kristof was approached by several feminists who told him that they had written about some of the same issues but hadn’t received the same response.

“Finally a guy co-writes a book and suddenly everyone pays attention to it,” Kristof said. “There’s an element of unfairness to it.”

Part of the reason Kristof has been such a long-time advocate for women is because he wants to give voice to the issues women face — and encourage others to do the same.

“There is some danger in thinking that the solution to women’s problems is always women,” Kristof said. “It’s important that men be brought into these kinds of debates; if it’s only women talking about women’s rights, the issue is marginalized.”

Journalists can be particularly influential in highlighting women’s issues and giving women the opportunity to let their voice be heard.

“I think that if one is trying to figure out in Egypt or in India or in any other country how to get some social concerns onto the agenda, then a starting point is to get them on the op-ed pages; otherwise, they just tend to be invisible,” Kristof said, noting the importance of covering a range of issues in opinion sections.

“For the same reason that I think strong, independent journalism is an important part of a civil society and democracy, I think journalism should be diverse in all kinds of ways.”

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