Wanted: Opinionated Women
By Kate Heartfield | March 26, 2009

So much has happened -- and so little has changed -- since the gender wars of 2005.

In January of that year, Larry Summers, then the president of Harvard University, got into trouble when he mused that women might be innately inferior at science and math.

In February, Michael Kinsley, editorial pages editor at the Los Angeles Times, got into a tangle with writer Susan Estrich over the paucity of female writers in his section. That led to a debate over whether there might be something inherently male about opinion writing.

Female newspaper columnists across North America offered theories for why there are so few of us, or theories about how we write when we do. I weighed in with a column skeptical of the notion anyone can say they know how women, in general, write.

And then it passed. Larry Summers is now an economic adviser to President Barack Obama. And newspapers -- well, newspapers found other things to worry about.

Meanwhile, one female opinion writer chose to do more than complain about how few of us there are. She's doing something about it.

Her name is Catherine Orenstein. She's a successful American op-ed writer. She's also a folklorist, so she understands that stories vary depending on who tells them.

In U.S. newspapers, she says, more than 80 per cent of the content of op-ed pages comes from men. This creates a story about public life: that 80 per cent of the people who have anything interesting to say are men. (The percentage is more like 75 per cent in Canada, Orenstein says.)

"Public debate is suffering from a lack of half of the best minds," said Orenstein during a public talk she gave on Monday evening at McGill University in Montreal.

It's possible that some form of structural sexism within newspapers is contributing to this imbalance. But Orenstein suspects the main problem is that women aren't submitting.

"Isn't it possible it's a numbers game?" she asks.

She, like me, is used to working with opinion editors at newspapers who go out of their way to be non-sexist. Even so, those editors have to work hard to get anything close to gender parity on their pages. Editors across the continent report they simply don't get as many opinion submissions from women.

Orenstein suspects there's a tipping point -- probably around 33 per cent of submissions -- beyond which editors could stop worrying about how many women they publish, because parity will happen naturally.

Maybe, then, women will see other women on op-ed pages, and will start to think about writing op-eds as something that women do. And women will become editors themselves in greater numbers.

Until then, change is not going to happen until someone makes it happen. Despite all the soul-searching in 2005, despite all the female students in journalism schools, despite the shifting demographics in so many professional fields, despite the fact that a woman almost became president, op-ed pages are still out of balance.

So Orenstein founded The OpEd Project. It offers seminars and mentorship to train women in op-ed writing. The aim is not to turn women into journalists; it's to help women in all fields -- researchers, entrepreneurs, educators -- become what she calls "thought leaders."

Orenstein believes women can change the ratios on op-ed pages without demanding quotas or special treatment.

The seminars convey the basic mechanics of what I do every day: Know your thesis. Marshall your arguments and back them up with evidence. Anticipate counter-arguments. Try to write, as Orenstein says, with "empathy and respect."

By the end of a day-long seminar, every woman in the room has the draft of an op-ed. The project has a long list of success stories of women who have gone on to publish.

But before all that happens, Orenstein has to address, over and over again, the ways in which women talk ourselves out of joining in. We don't believe we have enough or the right kind of expertise. We fear that people will attack us or laugh at us.

I've heard several women say they could never do what I do because they don't have enough opinions. Well, opinions aren't something you're born with. You develop them by looking at the evidence and asking yourself questions.

The one thing Orenstein doesn't venture an opinion on is whether these psychological barriers come from nature or nurture. The point is: they're surmountable. As a prominent op-ed writer herself, she struggles with self-doubt all the time. So do I.

But we write anyway, because it's important. No one is going to give women permission to join the public conversation. If we wait for an invitation, we'll be waiting forever.

Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.