Early a hundred years since women won the right to vote, their political and societal power is still only a fifth of what it should be - if the most influential space in major newspapers is any indicator. As the OpEd Project, an organization that aims to diversify public debate, recently found, a mere 20% of op-eds are written by women.
Researcher Taryn Yaeger looked at 7,000 pieces that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journalbetween 15 September and 7 December 2011, and found that while women wrote more frequently than men about so-called "pink" topics (like family concerns and home life), they were almost mute on matters such as Occupy Wall Street and other protests or rallies (14% of commentaries), international politics (13%), and the economy (11%).
to determine what the news is. They influence what we, as a country, contemplate and care about, and how we think of the big stories of the day. So when half of the population barely contributes to public forums that provoke so much discussion and action, democracy falters.
"The people we hear from on the issues of the day effectively narrate the world," says Katherine Lanpher, an instructor for the Op-Ed Project, a group that works to increase the diversity of voices in the media: "Op-eds aren't about writing. They're about power. They are a relatively simple tool that can lead to influence."
And when women don't exercise that power, they lose it. By being effectively absent from "the conversation" much of the time, they're not exerting as much influence as they could and should - which also means it's easier for the issues significant to them to get swept under the rug, or decided by people who do not have ovaries.
Take, for instance, the question of reproductive rights. While it's hard to draw a direct correlation between women's under-representation in the op-ed pages and the scary way that coverage for birth control and access to safe abortions have come under attack recently, it seems fair to suggest that there might be a link. After all, men control close to half of the dialogue about what it is to be a contemporary female: astonishingly, females wrote a mere 53% of op-eds even on "women's issues".
"What this [op-ed imbalance] brings to mind, in particular, is the recent all-male congressional hearing on contraception," says Anika Rahman, Ms Foundation president and CEO. What's she's referring to is a February meeting of the House committee on oversight and government reform; five male representatives - and not a single female - got together to voice their objections to a new federal law requiring employers to waive any co-pay fees for birth control.
Admittedly, there does not seem to be much of a gender gap when it comes to opinions about birth control coverage. But perhaps that has something to do with the way so many men in America - from religious leaders, to politicians, to, yes, op-ed writers - are still telling women what to think about their bodies, their health, and their future.
It's not just on Capitol Hill, however, that women often aren't given a chance to speak about their issues. On television, too, they're often shut out. "During the debate on birth control, cable networks called on male guests to talk about it by a margin of nearly two to one," Lanpher notes. (Let's not forget that women are minority voices in the film industry and on corporate boards, too.)
What's surprising, however, is that even when there are no gatekeepers to exclude them, no old boys' network to shut them out, women still aren't piping up enough, as evidenced by Wikipedia, where 85% of the contributions come from men. Does that mean that women are silent by choice? Does it imply that they're so under-represented in the most important sections of our major news media because they choose not to participate? Unfortunately, that seems partly true.
A significant part of the problem appears to be that women just don't have confidence that their opinions matter, or that they are informed enough. Therefore, they don't bother aiming for the op-ed pages. Says Lanpher: "Women and other minority voices, in my experience, are usually the first people to say, 'Oh, I'm not an expert in that, you could find someone better to talk to,'" "'What if someone who knows more calls me on it?''
It seems, in other words, that a lack of self-confidence is part of the problem. But there's an ouroboros element to women's insecurity: it's understandable, if lamentable, that they have trouble thinking of themselves as experts when four out of five of the pontificators in the mainstream media are males - and a very specific kind of male, at that. "Close to 80% or more of the participants in public conversation are white men of a particular social strata who went to the same schools," says Lanpher. "If you don't match up, you're going to hesitate to put yourself out there."
Sue Horton, the op-ed and Sunday opinion editor for the Los Angeles Times, made a similar point recently while talking to Erika Fry, a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. Fry summarized Horton's take this way: "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."
Women will write in when they feel certain they have specialized knowledge of a subject, whereas men don't feel they need much more than a strong opinion or an interesting idea. We females need to remember this the next time we're at a dinner party: men aren't necessarily more expert than us, even if they're more more likely to be bloviators - at friends' houses, as well as in illustrious publications. If we women started speaking up more often in private settings, perhaps we'd find our voices - and feel more empowered to speak our minds publicly and prominently, too.
The writer is a freelance writer www.theguardian.com
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