Why aren’t more women in punditry?

Thought Out Loud by Kate Heartfield 10 January 2012

A few weeks ago, I met another female writer for lunch in downtown Ottawa. Before we’d finished with the menus, we were talking about a column that ran in The Globe and Mail a few days before, by Tabatha Southey. It was a column about sexual harassment, and was the kind of piece that could only be written by a woman.

That’s not to say that a man couldn’t have written a great column on the same subject, even with the same thesis. But it’s hard to imagine a man using this particular ironic slant on this particular topic: “So here’s my proposal: women, we need to start finding sexual harassment a lot funnier… No, I don’t understand why some men want us to find anything involving their penises so funny. But work with me, womankind, lest it ever be said again that we can’t take a joke.”

I am a feminist, but not a maternal feminist. The reason I wish more women wrote opinion is not that I believe women as a bloc have something to say, or that they can or should have some kind of improving influence on the discourse. It does matter, though, that female writers account for only about 15 to 25 per cent of the typical newspaper opinion section in North America. (See the “research” tab at informedopinions.org for some of the research that gives us those numbers.)

The first reason why it matters is that a person’s gender is one of the elements of their experience. Experience doesn’t determine a person’s opinions, but it does inform them. Sometimes, the value of including both men and women in a conversation becomes apparent in small (even silly) but practical ways. Sometimes it even comes down to simple matters of sex and biology.

There was a time when I was the only woman on the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board – though that’s no longer the case. I remember one discussion about the boom in popularity of a certain yoga clothing manufacturer. (It must have been a slow news day.) There had to be some cultural significance to the tightness of the shirts, some of my colleagues thought; they figured the phenomenon was a sign of how much women would pay, or thought they should pay, to indulge their vanity. I listened for a while, trying to come up with a way to explain, in words that wouldn’t make my colleagues too uncomfortable, that if you’re a woman doing exercises in public that require you to be upside down, tight shirts are essential to the preservation of modesty – not to mention, for some of us, the ability to breathe.

There are all kinds of topics in the public interest to which a woman might bring valuable personal experience that would differ from that of a man – from the federal government’s maternal health initiatives abroad to the question of whether a victim’s clothing is relevant in sexual assault cases.

The second reason the gender gap matters is that any needless limitation on the pool of available opinion writers is bad for Canada. There are not so many brilliant analysts in this country that we can’t afford to let any of them hold back out of a lack of confidence or training or habit.

And it is very clear that the problem is that women, themselves, are holding back. Many opinion editors will tell you that they’d love to run more articles by women, but that they just aren’t getting enough submissions from them.

Six years ago, a very public and nasty spat between a couple of journalists in the United States led to a massive navel-gazing exercise across North American punditry, especially among female pundits. Everybody and their mother weighed in about why women are less inclined to write opinion, and then everybody forgot about it. Everybody except Katie Orenstein, an American writer who decided to do something about it. She started The OpEd Project, which teaches women how to write and pitch opinion articles and take part in the public conversation. In Canada, the writer Shari Graydon runs a similar project called *Informed Opinions. I know both Orenstein and Graydon a little and volunteer as a mentor-editor for both projects. Both have told me that the first step in the process is convincing women to think of themselves as experts – convincing them they have something valuable to say.

There are other structural reasons for the gender gap in political commentary. One is that some of the pools from which op-ed writers tend to come are themselves places where women are underrepresented. Female writers are notably rare in the submissions the Citizen gets on defence, security, and foreign policy – an important area for all opinion sections, but especially for an opinion section in the national capital. We get a lot of submissions from retired members of the Canadian forces, former diplomats, and professors. A quick glance at the faculty page of, say, the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University shows that men significantly outnumber women. That’s still common in some academic fields, and it’s not a surprise that these proportions are reflected in opinion sections. I don’t think that means women don’t care what happens in Syria, but rather that they don’t think they’re qualified to comment. Of course, if you’re going to pitch an op-ed about conflict in Syria, you should have (or should develop) some relevant expertise. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a professor or a former diplomat.

The good news is that whenever a woman like Michelle Shephard or Erna Paris demonstrates that women can become authorities on stereotypically male-dominated topics, other women might have an easier time putting up their hands when they have something to say.

Early this year, Katha Pollitt wrote in Slate that all this talk about getting women to submit opinion has been missing the point. Look to the editors, she argued. Get more women onto the mastheads and get them working to increase the numbers of women they publish. “The phone works both ways,” she pointed out.

It does indeed. If editors want things to change, they must remember to think of women whenever they’re casting around for an expert to write or to comment.

But that’s not going to be enough to close the gender gap. For that to happen, women have to pitch and submit opinion articles.

Consider the following scenario. You’re an opinion editor at a major daily newspaper. The big news of the day is that Moammar Gadhafi might have been killed. When you get into your office in the morning, you’ve got three emails waiting from male experts who are keen to write about the subject – experts who have written for you before, who understand how to write for newspapers, whose copy is clean, whose research is sound. You go to the editorial board meeting; by the time you get back, two more of your favourite writers have submitted complete, clean op-eds making interesting points.

You’ve got an editorial to write, columns to edit, a web chat to moderate and an inbox that gets more demanding with each passing minute. Are you really going to seek out a woman to write on a topic for which you already have a selection of fine op-eds in hand?

Sure, editors can choose to do the extra work it takes to seek out new voices; many do. But as editors get busier – and it seems unlikely they’re going to get any less busy – the appeal of the usual suspects gets stronger. In newspaper opinion sections, the usual suspects tend to be men. If women want that to change, they have to stop making it hard for editors to find them and publish their work.

Kate Heartfield (@kateheartfield) is the deputy editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen. Pitch her op-eds any time. We’re looking at you, ladies.

*Informed Opinions is a project by Media Action Média that is bridging the gender gap in public discourse by training and supporting experts in making their ideas and knowledge more accessible to print, broadcast and online information media.

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