Op-ed editors I spoke with—the majority of whom were women—all said that demographic diversity is a goal and, in many cases, something that they strive for as they solicit pieces for their section. But they also told me they receive far fewer submissions from women. In 2008, The Washington Post’s op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, estimated the rate was nine to one.
Meanwhile, something more interesting may be going on. Horton says, anecdotally, submissions from women are more likely to be from writers who are particularly informed, while a much greater share of submissions from men are “dinner party op-eds”—pieces written because the author has an opinion on the subject, not because of any particular standing or expertise. Editors shared similar stories about why solicitation efforts sometimes fail: Brewington and Horton both say women are more likely to turn down requests for a solicited piece, often because they are too busy to do it well. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to accept the invitation without hesitation.
Such anecdotes bear resemblances to the “productivity puzzle” that baffled scientists for decades. Until recently, women scientists were found to publish scholarly articles less frequently than men, but when they did publish, their articles were more frequently cited. In the past decade, the productivity gender gap has disappeared; women and men publish more or less at the same frequency (mothers and non-mothers do not).
Explanations for these patterns have changed over the years. In the 1970s, some thinkers labeled argumentative writing an oppressive and “masculine” art; feminist Sally Gearhart even argued that persuasion was “an act of violence.” Women were seen as inclined to discursive rhetoric that considered other points of view and encouraged readers to draw their own conclusions.
But these efforts to define female ways of thought and expression came to be seen themselves as reinforcing gender stereotypes. “That scholarship reached a stopping point,” says Susan C. Jarratt, a professor of comparative literature at the University of California-Irvine. “Where we ended up was that it’s good to have lots of different styles in your repertoire and to recognize their rhetorical usefulness.”
In vogue now is the notion that we express ourselves according to our individual backgrounds and social conditioning. In other words, white men, with history on their side, may be better conditioned to contributing to professional opinion spaces, though they are not more biologically suited to it. This “historical hangover” is the inspiration for a panel discussion “Throw Like a Girl: Pitching the Hell out of Your Stories” that will be hosted in Brooklyn tonight by the organization Her Girl Friday.
Closing gaps on the new frontier?
So one might expect that as new media and new generations—both less bound by this history—come to the fore, opinion writing will become less and less a white man’s turf. And there are, in fact, some signs of approaching balance. The OpEd Project’s byline survey found that women contributed 38 percent of opinion pieces in surveyed college media, and 33 percent at web-native outlets The Huffington Post and Salon during the same 12-week period.
But while women’s opinions were better represented in digital media, they were more than twice as likely to focus on “pink topics”—the “four F’s” (family, food, furniture, fashion), plus women’s and gender issues—than in the traditional media, where about 14 percent of women’s op-eds were “pink.” These statistics suggest a silo effect online, with writers speaking more frequently to like-minded (or like-bodied) individuals—a concern that has been much lamented within the political media landscape, but less so with regards to gender, race, and class. This development would seem to hark back to the days of the “ladies pages”; while there is nothing wrong with women writing on “pink topics,” it’s the relative lack of women’s voices on non-pink topics like the economy and politics online that is problematic.
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Other studies have produced similarly mixed results. A byline tally by GOOD released in the wake of the VIDA count found women had higher contribution rates in publications “for the next generation,” or those which Good described as “magazines and websites Millennials write and read”.
Conventional wisdom has it that social media, the ever more heralded tool for journalists of the next generation, will, because it’s social, actually skew feminine. Blogs are more likely to be written by women, and Facebook and Twitter users are more likely to be female. But while women dominate these platforms in numbers, they are less likely to drive conversation with them.