February 25, 2011

In preparation for a piece about the lack of women who contribute to op-ed pages, I talked with New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who has written extensively about women’s history.

As the Times’ first female editorial page editor, Collins explained the Times’ efforts to feature more female voices and offered an interesting perspective on why women don’t contribute more and why she thinks this is a problem “we’re going to lick in the near future.”

Here is our edited e-mail exchange.

Mallary Jean Tenore: The Op-Ed Project has been tracking the number of op-eds written by women and has found that The New York Times features the least female voices. As the first woman appointed editor of the Times editorial page, and as a columnist now, can you speak to why you think more women don’t contribute to the Times’ op-ed page, or to op-ed pages in general?

Gail Collins: This is an issue we’ve been struggling with for years. Back when I was editor, we had several meetings and studies to try to figure out why women’s voices were underrepresented in the Times opinion pages. I know the editors have continued to work on the problem ever since.

One thing that’s been consistently true is that women don’t put their hands up as often as men. When we did our first study back almost 10 years ago, I think we found that in letters to the editor, and unsolicited op-ed pieces, the preponderance of men was off the charts. My memory of the numbers is foggy, but I think the proportions were either 7-1 or 9-1.

To get a little bit of an update, I asked the letters editor, Tom Feyer, to see what proportion of the letters on the State of the Union speech, were from women. He said men predominated 4-1. But please let me stress that nobody here takes that as a signal that we don’t need to do any more than hit a 4-1 target.

Are there certain topics that tend to stir more letters to the editor or op-eds from women?

Collins: Women tend to be the majority of the writers on issues relating to children and education. But we’re not looking for the kind of equity that comes with presuming that women are just interested in family issues.

Has the Times made any efforts to get more female voices on the op-ed pages?

Collins: Right now we’re between editors in op-ed so there isn’t a person for me to refer you to who can discuss the section’s efforts in detail. But I do know that David Shipley was very sensitive to these issues and put in a great deal of time looking for new women’s voices, both among the columnists and the op-ed contributors.

Unlike op-ed, letters doesn’t really go out and solicit contributions — they’re pretty much snowed under the minute they sit down in the morning. But they are exceptionally concerned with making sure the letters they publish reflect a diverse pool of correspondents — politically, geographically, and of course in terms of gender.

How do you hope Trish Hall, the Times’ newly appointed Op-Ed editor, can help bring more female voices into the op-ed page?

Collins: Trish Hall is a fantastic editor. We worked together long before either of us came to the Times, when we were both reporters in Connecticut. She’s the fairest person I know and I have no doubts that she’ll make further progress in recruiting great female voices for the page.

Anything else you want to add?

Collins: I’ve written two books about women’s history, so these kind of questions are very important to me.

I’m pretty confident that this is a problem we’re going to lick in the near future. It’s only been about the past quarter of a second, historically speaking, that women have been encouraged to take part in the public debate. Now they’re completely engaged, and I know that’s going to be reflected in opinion pages and opinion sites.

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Mallary Jean Tenore

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