“Man. Man. Man. Man. Man. Man.” I had Sue Horton, the Op-ed and Sunday opinion editor at the Los Angeles Times on the phone one morning in early March. She was flipping through her slush pile of op-eds, calling out the gender of each author—a demonstration of her daily odds. “Man. Woman. Man. Woman. Man.” We got to 32, six of whom were women. “Do you want me to keep going?”

Horton receives more than 100 op-ed submissions a day, the overwhelming majority of which are written by men. Her section publishes 21 op-eds per week, many of which she solicits. She has no idea how many of these, on average, are written by women—or minorities. But, she concedes, the calculus rarely strikes the ideal demographic balance.

This, of course, is not a new struggle.

And the Times, of course, has been at the center of the debate before. In 2005, the paper ran a provocative op-ed by Charlotte Allen, who argued that feminism had led to a dearth of female public intellectuals. In response, political commentator Susan Estrich, who had long been appalled by how few opinion page bylines belonged to women, ripped off her own op-ed in which she identified a very different cause—the judgment of male editors, and especially that of Michael Kinsley, a former classmate and then the Los Angeles Times’s op-ed editor.

The debate devolved from there, and Estrich’s byline counts of women on op-ed pages—which, ranging from 10 to 20 percent, truly were appalling —got lost in the very public exchange of ugly words.

Seven years later, Horton is in Kinsley’s place, and the byline counts, though slightly improved, are still dismal.

Women wrote 20 percent of op-eds in the nation’s leading newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal—between September 15 and December 7, 2011, according to a byline survey conducted by Taryn Yaeger of The OpEd Project, an organization that aims to diversify public debate. (Full disclosure: Since December, I have done part-time work for the organization).

And women were practically absent in the debate of many hard news subjects, with their opinions accounting for 11 percent of commentaries on the economy, 13 percent on international politics, 14 percent on social action and 16 percent on security. Perhaps just as striking, women produced just over half—53 percent—of commentaries on “women’s issues.”


To see a larger version of this image, click here. (All graphics provided by The OpEd Project.)

Though harder to track, statistics on racial, ethnic, and class diversity on opinion pages are just as jarring. A similar three-month byline survey, released in April by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), showed one-half of one percent of op-eds in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were written by Latinos; in The Washington Post, it was 0 percent. Asian Americans authored an average of 2 percent; blacks roughly 5 percent (though that rate was lifted by the Post’s 10 percent).

Statistics like these are released periodically, always to mild outrage, vows to do better, and efforts to see the silver lining in the ever-more-empowered minority citizens of the future and the ever-more-empowering social media landscape. This year has been chock full of such episodes and rancorous debate—from the pitiful byline counts in top thought magazines collected by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, to the shutout of women in major categories at the ASME awards (no women even nominated!), to the exposure of Silicon Valley’s fratty “brogramming culture.”

Yet, meaningful diversity remains elusive.

What’s going on?

Access and pitching problems

The fact that women speak less in opinion space is “a straightforward question of access,” says Eleanor Townsley, sociologist and co-author of The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere.
Access is one of the stock explanations for the media gender gap, and it’s a compelling one, when you look at the relatively few women who are given positions as columnists or television commentators. After all, there is no shortage of females who can write and who have opinions. Ann Friedman, the executive editor at Good magazine makes this case everyday on her Lady Journos! website, which features a running blog of writing from women and argues that closing the byline gap could be swiftly achieved by some basic behavioral changes from a handful of key editorial gatekeepers (and more women in those gatekeeper positions).

But access is only part of the problem when it comes to understanding the gender gap on op-ed pages, where contributions come increasingly from a wide range of experts.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.