February 25, 2011

Women have made the case for years that there aren’t enough female voices in the opinion pages. The root of the problem, though, isn’t so much that news organizations aren’t featuring female contributors; it’s that they aren’t contributing in the first place.

The reasons they cite are endless, says Catherine Orenstein, founder of the Op-Ed Project, which is designed to enrich public conversation by expanding the range of voices we hear, and especially by increasing the number of women who participate.

I’m not an expert in anything. You should really ask another person. I don’t want to be pretentious or snotty. I don’t have a Ph.D. …

“The effect of all these statements is that women are pulling themselves out of the discussion,” Orenstein said in a phone interview. “A lot of them will in some way discount themselves and their knowledge. If you think about it, what it means is that there’s a disconnect between what we know and our sense that it actually matters.”

How the gender gap is playing out at news orgs

Orenstein founded the Op-Ed Project four years ago partly to help women realize that their input is valuable. About 4,000 women have gone through the Op-Ed Project, which reaches out to female and minority subject matter experts and encourages them to cultivate and share their ideas with the public. Many of these women have gone through the Project’s national mentoring program, where they’re matched with senior-level media folks who offer them support.

The Op-Ed Project’s Augusta Hagen-Dillon has been tracking how the gender gap is playing out in the opinion sections of nine news outlets. VIDA, an organization for women writers, has also tracked bylines and released a study earlier this month showing the lack of female writers in publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Atlantic. Many women have responded to the findings, including Katha Pollitt, who wrote a Slate piece saying if magazines want more female writers, they need to get more female editors.

Hagen-Dillon’s findings represent early, unverified data, but the Op-Ed Project plans to release a report with more formal data in a few weeks.

Based on byline counts, Hagen-Dillon has found that legacy print publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post tend to feature the fewest female voices (usually around 15 to 25 percent). The newer online-only sites tend to have slightly more female bylines, while the student-run publications have the most. But they’re still overwhelmingly male. The same is true on some non-news sites, such as Wikipedia.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who was the Times’ first female editorial page editor, said that when she was editor, the Times conducted several meetings and related studies to figure out why women’s voices were underrepresented. It has now hired a new female op-ed editor, Trish Hall, who just started two weeks ago.

“One thing that’s been consistently true is that women don’t put their hands up as often as men,” Collins said by e-mail. “When we did our first study 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.”

Hall said it appears that way still, with men contributing most of the pieces that come in unsolicited.

Collins said the majority of women writing in to The New York Times write about issues relating to children and education. She pointed out, though, that the Times isn’t “looking for the  kind of equity that comes with presuming that women are just interested in family issues.” When it came to letters on the State of the Union Address, male contributors predominated 4-1, Collins said.

Of course, letters to the editor aren’t the only way for women to share their ideas these days; they can share them in online forums, on blogs and in the comments section of stories. The Washington Post’s Michael Larabee, who selects the Post’s letters to the editor, tries to feature a diversity of voices in the letters, but says it’s difficult because he doesn’t solicit contributors.

“We’re mindful of diversity, but content remains number one; we want something interesting, smart, fresh, tight, good writing,” Larabee said by phone. “Since most of the letters come in from men, it’s logical that that disparity would be reflected in what we run.”

The late Deborah Howell wrote about this disparity in 2008, saying: “The Post’s op-ed page is too male and too white” and that “women and people of color don’t submit nearly as many op-eds as white men do.”

There are some exceptions. Recently, for instance, the Post ran a letters package on “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and received far more submissions from women. All four of the letters Larabee featured were from females.

Why more women don’t contribute

There are a variety of reasons women don’t contribute as much as men.

“We live in a culture of underrepresentation,” Orenstein said. “The problem is it makes us focus more on our own fear of whether we’re bragging or overstepping and less focused on the value of our knowledge and the social obligation of stepping forward in the world’s conversation.”

She also pointed out that we get ideas from the people we circulate with and from the people who look and sound like us. This is true for both women and people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. If we don’t see people like us speaking up, Orenstein said, it may not occur to us that we should speak up ourselves.

Having more diverse voices in opinion pages, Orenstein said, helps expands our understanding of issues.

“We’re getting only a tiny fraction of the world’s knowledge and the best ideas. There’s a huge black hole of ignorance,” Orenstein said. “There’s nothing wrong with the people who have the world’s microphone … but the rest of us need to have a bigger voice.”

A problem “we’re going to lick in the near future”

Some news organizations have made a concerted effort to find more female contributors. PBS’ Need to Know decided early on that it wanted to feature a mix of female and male contributors for its “Voices” column, but had difficulty finding women who were willing to write.

“I pause to generalize that women aren’t as confident as their male counterparts, but that’s what I’ve found. There is this sense of, ‘Who am I to be so strident on paper, and why would people want to listen to me?’ ” said Jeanne Park, online editor of Need to Know.

To recruit more female contributors, Park began working with the Op-Ed Project and Project Syndicate, which provides news outlets with op-ed commentaries.

Now, the Voices column features 20 contributors, 9 of whom are women. Some of the site’s strongest contributions, Park said by phone, are from female anthropologists, professors and political activists who are writing about terrorism, health care reform and the effects of the earthquake in Haiti.

“The more women you see in opinion columns, the more you begin to realize that it’s not this unheard of thing to put yourself and your writing out there,” said Park, who noted that her “big break” in journalism came when she got an opinion piece published in The New York Times as a teenager.

When she looks back on the past five years, Orenstein said she thinks news organizations are doing “notably better” at featuring more female voices and that more women are starting to step up. Collins is also optimistic about bridging the gender gap.

“I’m pretty confident that this is a problem we’re going to lick in the near future,” Collins said. “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 Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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