Don’t think pink

Isn't it time "women's issues" are just issues?

Hey journalists, how do you navigate the “pink ghetto”?

For starters, try changing the language used to describe topics traditionally considered “women’s issues,” OpEd Project founder Katie Orenstein said on Monday night. She spoke on a panel called “Navigating the Pink Ghetto,” hosted by the New America Foundation.

“Aren’t we ghettoizing ourselves,” Orenstein asked at the New America’s NYC office, by describing topics like family, education, and gender politics as women’s-only territory?

She joined Slate senior editor and New York Times Magazine contributing writer Emily Bazelon, author and journalist Annie Murphy-Paul, and author and New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul on the panel, for some soul searching on data that shows women are writing a lot about ‘pink topics’—and what that event means. The event was hosted in collaboration with The Invisible Institute, a writer’s group of mostly women—including Murphy-Paul, Paul, and Orenstein—who focus on serious ideas and issues.

Murphy-Paul noted that women no longer are confined to the original “pink ghetto,” a term coined decades back to describe the situation of woman journalists who were limited to writing on topics like marriage and fashion. She said that applying the term today is problematic and marginalizing, because when women write about “pink” topics, they are choosing to do so. Is that really a bad thing?

The panelists seemed to agree not, so long as women’s voices are heard, too, on subjects that are not traditionally “pink” —like the economy, foreign affairs, or defense. For data on how these numbers break down, see my report from several weeks ago.)

One audience member noted the consequences of the lack of women’s voices on these subjects: without women weighing in publicly on weighty issues, major policy decisions are made without considering the perspective of half the population. Paul citied Laura Secor’s dispatches from Iran as an example of the particular value and different approach women can bring stories that are traditionally covered by men.

Bazelon generalized other qualities that tend to separate male and female reporters, saying that women tend to be more thorough and comprehensive reporters, as well as less quick to assume authority on subjects. Likewise, in her role as editor, Bazelon has found that women have a harder time taking a stand on issues. But she also notes that’s not necessarily a bad thing—doubt and self-questioning are “healthy and good,” particularly in journalism.

But Bazelon also acknowledged that while the extra time and legwork lead women to be more measured and nuanced in their reporting, this extra time is not rewarded in the modern media landscape, which appreciates the quick, clear, and punchy. That women tend to be less drawn to this style of expression may just reflect a “problem of culture right now,” she added.

The panelists also all hit upon the point that though “women’s issues” are of universal interest, they are treated editorially as light.

Murphy-Paul pointed out these “soft stories” are often behind best-selling magazine issues—like Time’s recent breastfeeding cover—or at the top of most-read and most-emailed lists. At the same time, this popular success is rarely equated with prestige said the panelists.

“It’s almost like the more interesting a story is, the less important it’s considered,” commented Murphy-Paul.

Paul said this is the same in the book world. While men’s books and topics tend to get deemed ‘more important’ and are marketed to a universal audience, books written by women are more likely to be categorized as “women’s literature.” What makes this marketing approach particularly odd, Paul added, is that most readers are women. Murphy-Paul remarked that she had strategized—blue book cover, emphasis on science—to get around this phenomenon when when she published Origins, her book on the science of the fetus.

Paul also noted that these nonfiction dynamics—including underplaying the importance of “women’s” stories, women reporters’ tendency to work in ways that don’t fit the current news cycle, and the under-representation of women in policy circles—help to explain the gender gap on op-ed pages too. There is a natural back-and-forth between op-ed pages and influential nonfiction: book contracts are awarded to op-ed writers (like Goldman Sachs-quitter Greg Smith) or op-eds are published by authors trying to promote their books.

One member of the audience volunteered that to universalize “pink topics” and make them matter in the media as much as they do in real life, the media should make an effort to “cross-list” them, or bring more men into the discussion. Everyone seemed to think that was a good idea, while noting that very few men had attended the night’s panel.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.