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.

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.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.