behind the news

It’s 2012 already: why is opinion writing still mostly male?

Byline counts are better, but not much. How come?
May 29, 2012

“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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

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.

To see a larger version of this image, click here

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.

Take for example findings from The Gender Report, an organization that monitors gender in online media: a year-long study found that women had bylines on 19.6 percent of the most-linked and discussed stories. Women were also less likely to be sources in these most discussed stories: only 19 percent of sources were female, and 35 percent of stories had no female sources at all (perhaps more troublingly, 30.4 percent of the stories had no sources at all.)

Twitter, the platform that is all about putting one’s voice and opinions out there, also appears to suffer a gender gap. A Harvard Business School study published in 2009 found women on Twitter have 15 percent fewer followers than men. Men were twice as likely to follow a man than a woman, and even women were 25 percent more likely to follow a man.

The Rise of Opinion

These statistics from the media frontier are interesting, but a pair of sociologists suggest the incremental growth in the women’s commentariat in traditional media is far more significant. Their argument: Despite the rise of new media, traditional media remains most influential in shaping public opinion and setting the national and broader news agendas.

Eleanor Townsley with her co-author Ronald Jacobs make this point in their book, The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere, arguing that because of the trickle-down nature of the new news landscape—mainstream conversation becomes fodder for new media conversation— television commentaries and the op-ed pages of elite newspapers are “increasingly central to the large and densely networked public sphere.”

In other words, opinion in the legacy media is more amplified and influential than ever.

At the same time, as media budgets and reporting staffs have shrunk, opinion is more abundant than ever across the media landscape. Look no further than television, where lower-cost punditry has largely replaced reported video pieces or to the news wires—Bloomberg and Reuters both recently expanded into opinion. The New York Times has also bulked up its opinion offerings online and in the Sunday paper.

“Opinion has become much more important,” Townsley told me. She and Jacobs argue that though this shift has arisen in part on the back of journalism’s troubled business model and the decline in investigative journalism, the media’s (much maligned) expansion into opinion, is not necessarily a bad thing, but in fact, a very American thing—the means to a more varied and vibrant public sphere.

And this growing sphere of opinion has become more varied and vibrant in some respects: Townsley’s research shows that as there has been an enormous proliferation of opinion formats, there has also been an increasing diversity of the speakers opining in them—in terms of profession. In the past professional writers and journalists used produce a far greater share of opinion content; now op-eds and punditry come increasingly from experts in particular fields like government, science and economics.

Yet, these changes have failed to translate to demographic diversity at the top in the nation’s most influential opinion space; instead they have ushered in the gender gaps that exist in other elite segments of society: among the tenured faculty, politicians, business executives, and think tank types who write opinion pieces. In other words, more than becoming less white or less male in recent decades, the pundit class has become more diverse only in the sense of being less journalist.

What kind of diversity really matters?

This picture of the pundit’s new prominence in American media raises broader questions than about the rate at which women’s thoughts appear on the LA Times op-ed page. It’s a matter of which ideas and whose voices are driving debate and shaping public opinion.

“The OpEd section should make you think, challenge your assumptions, be well written, well argued, but beyond that it should make the reader feel that their opinions are represented there,” says Richard Prince, Diversity Committee chair of the Association of Opinion
Journalists, who also writes a diversity column for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “All those reasons are reasons for diversity.”

Every editor I talked with told me diversity matters, the question of how to achieve diversity and what that really means on op-ed pages remains an open question.

Editors told me that though they hope for a gender- and ethnically-balanced page, most said that achieving this is secondary to having an original, provocative and topically-diverse page. Almost all the editors I spoke with bristled at the notion of any sort of diversity ‘quota,’ or the sort of rigid prescription for the op-ed pages like that once applied to USA Today’s front page (For many years, the paper mandated the mention of at least one woman and one person of color above the paper’s fold; and indeed, USA Today has long led newspapers in diversity statistics.)

“It’s not just that you want men and women, you want really different people with really different backgrounds. Aiming at varieties of experience is just as important,” says Trish Hall, the op-ed editor at The New York Times. Hall’s section gets 1500 submissions per week, and she receives many more sent to her personal inbox, but they’re not often from the sort of unheard voices she wants more of; they’re largely from the opinion industry. “The hardest thing to find in this deluge of opinions is something that you haven’t actually read before. There’s not that much original thinking going on.”

That’s a worthy priority; it’s also one we’ll bet is easier to achieve with more voices of women and members of minority groups in the mix.

Correction: The original version of this piece mentioned that Richard Prince was a columnist at USA Today. Prince is not a columnist at USA Today, but is Diversity Committee chair of the Association of Opinion Journalists. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.