The Opinion Pages: Mostly a Man's World
By Reyhan Harmanci | July 1, 2008
When it comes to the opinion pages of some of the most influential American newspapers, it's far too often a man's world.
One reason for the disparity is obvious: Women are still breaking through glass ceilings in business, government and academia.
But another possible reason could be found a half hour into a recent daylong opinion-writing seminar for women in San Francisco, led by author and Op-Ed Project founder Catherine Orenstein. Orenstein went around the room and asked the six assembled women, ranging in age from early 30s to mid-60s, to finish the sentence, "I'm an expert in ..."
Immediately, there was resistance.
"Oh, I don't really feel like I'm the expert in anything," said Lynne Dory, who's worked as an administrator at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for 14 years. Other women, like Golden Gate School of Law Professor Chris Pagano and Loyola Marymount sociology Professor Mara Marks, tended to put their most sparkling accomplishments last - such as testifiying before the Food and Drug Administration or heading a research foundation. They didn't want to "brag."
None of the highly credentialed and intelligent women, save perhaps opinion and book editor Laura Mazer, managed to make it through the exercise without issuing a caveat or admitting discomfort with the word.
Orenstein told the group they were not alone - "this happens in every seminar"- but moved briskly on to other topics, such as tips on constructing a solid argument and pitching opinion editorials to newspapers, and a discussion of why opinion pieces matter.
By not contributing to opinion pages, women, Orenstein argues, are cheating themselves out of opportunities for professional advancement, and the public out of important discourse. "The time for not taking yourselves seriously," Orenstein said firmly, "is over."
Orenstein's Op-Ed Project was born out of a heated 2005 public debate between liberal commentator Susan Estrich and the then-editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion page, Michael Kinsley. Estrich found that about 20 percent of Times opinion columns came from women in the first nine weeks of 2005, which was actually higher than that of the New York Times (17 percent) and the Washington Post (10 percent) during the same time period.
The current numbers for national newspapers are just as striking as the ones Estrich published three years ago. In late May, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell reported that 9 out of 10 unsolicited opinion pieces came from men, and among the 654 commentaries that had been published in the Post, 575 were by men and 79 were by women.
In June, Bob Sommer, Rutgers University public policy researcher and Observer Media Group president, and Rutgers public policy graduate student John R. Maycroft published a report in Policy and Politics Journal on academic contributions to the opinion pages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Newark Star-Ledger in 2006. Men wrote 78 percent of academics' opinion pieces in the Star-Ledger, 82 percent in the Times and 97 percent in the Journal. "Gender was not one of the questions we looked at initially," Sommer said in a phone interview. "But as we were talking about the op-eds, something struck me as odd: There are not too many by women."
Added Sommer: "There are more women, as a percentage, in the U.S. Senate than published in the op-ed pages. I can't use a better word than astonishing." Chronicle Deputy Editorial Page Editor Lois Kazakoff found, in an unscientific survey, that during a weeklong period in June, 8 out of 25 publishable submissions came from women, or 32 percent. In general, she said The Chronicle is in line with the lower percentages of published pieces by women in the Rutgers study.
Orenstein, herself a prolific opinion writer for many national publications, has chosen to attack this problem as a supply-side issue. She knew from experience that opinion editors were interested in publishing women's commentaries - they complained to her that they weren't getting submissions from women. So, as an experiment, she worked with the Woodhull Foundation, a women's ethics and leadership group for which she is a fellow, to create a class on opinion writing for women in 2005.
That experiment became the Op-Ed Project in 2007. It now works regularly with five top universities and about 20 different think tanks and nonprofits, as well as with corporations, community leaders and the public in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco in a partnership with SheSource.org, an online database of female experts. The project also recently brokered a deal with Stanford University to offer seminars to its female academics.
The steep gender discrepancy in opinion pieces echoes other inequities in female media representation. According to the White House Project, a nonpartisan group that aims to advance women in leadership positions, women make up only 14 percent of total appearances on the influential Sunday morning political talk shows. Glamour editor Ruth Davis Konigsberg found that in 2005 women accounted for only a third of the bylines in five of the most prestigious magazines.
But Orenstein believes that the opinion-piece problem is highly fixable; the beauty of an opinion submission is that anyone can do it. "It's not like writing the great American novel," Orenstein said, "it's not poetry. There are basic concepts that are pretty easy to share with people."
The initial results of the Op-Ed Project are promising. The first 12-woman retreat in 2005 produced 12 published commentaries. Since 2005, 50 op-eds that have been printed in national publications by women who credit the class with inspiration. "Fifteen hundred people have gone through (the program)," Orenstein said, "and we're adding 150 (graduates) a month."
Along with traditional opinion pieces published in newspapers and online publications, the Op-Ed Project has been helping graduates parlay their knowledge into radio and television interviews. "The op-ed is really a metaphor," Orenstein said, "for a bold, persuasive argument."
"Do you know what happened when I published an op-ed about Haiti in the New York Times?" she asked the class. "I met with President Clinton's Latin America policy advisers the next week." She contends that book deals and speaking engagements as well as policy discussion and academic inquiry are all possible outcomes of a well-placed opinion piece.
Although blogs are increasingly popular among female writers, Megan Carpentier, who blogs for Glamour magazine and Jezebel.com, says traditional opinion pieces, rather than online writing, are still where policymakers get information. "To a degree, (this choice) is generational," Carpentier said.
Rutgers researcher Sommer, who began his career as a Washington lobbyist, said there's "no better" way to influence legislators than the opinion pages. "What I can definitely say is that it's a great opportunity that is not being taken advantage of by women looking to have an impact on policy process. An equal share of the blame goes to people who aren't submitting."
In the end, parsing the myriad reasons why women can't get their mouths around the word "expert" is not where Orenstein's interest lies. The Op-Ed Project aims to make a difference in much the same way a good commentary does: by keeping a tight focus on the end goal, getting women into leadership positions.
"Patterns do change. I think seeing it any other way is premature," Orenstein said. "Maybe there's a question of biological aptitude, maybe it's a question of institutional sexism, maybe anything. But how will we know if we don't start submitting, and see what happens?"
The Op-Ed Project holds bimonthly public seminars in San Francisco at a cost of $300-$325, depending on the date of registration. The next seminar will be held on Aug. 24 at 182 Second St., Suite 400.
For more information: www.theopedproject.org.
How do women rank on the opinion pages? Studies break it down.
Women on the opinion pages
How do women rank on the opinion pages of some of America's most influential newspapers? Here are some study results:
What: Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell counted opinion bylines for a May 25 column on newspaper diversity.
Time frame: January-May
Numbers: Of 654 published opinion pieces in the Washington Post: 575 were by men, 79 were by women. Also, an estimated 9 out of 10 unsolicited opinion submissions were from men.
What: Study published in June 2008 Policy & Politics journal by Bob Sommer, Rutgers University public policy researcher and Observer Media Group president, and Rutgers public policy graduate student John R. Maycroft. Focused on academic contributions to opinion pages.
Time frame: 2006
Numbers: Men wrote 78 percent of academics' opinion pieces in the Newark Star-Ledger, 82 percent in the New York Times and 97 percent in the Wall Street Journal.
What: Commentator Susan Estrich's 2005 study on opinion pieces in the Los Angeles Times.
Time frame: First nine weeks of 2005
Numbers: 20.5 percent of published opinion pieces in the Los Angeles Times were from women, compared with the New York Times at 17 percent and Washington Post at 10 percent.
E-mail Reyhan Harmanci at