About our founder: Katie Orenstein
Founder and CEO of The OpEd Project, writes and speaks frequently about the intersection of media and mythology – that is, what we think is fact or fiction and how that shapes our ideas about politics, culture and history. She has contributed to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald. Her commentaries on women, politics, popular culture, mythology and human rights have been nationally syndicated and appear in anthologies. She has lectured at Harvard and Stanford universities, and appeared on ABC TV World News, Good Morning America, MSNBC, CNN and NPR All Things Considered. A graduate of Harvard (MA) and Columbia (MA) universities, she is the author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality & the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, which explores stories told about women over 500 years across multiple continents, and how they shape our lives today. It has been translated into multiple languages and is under consideration for a television series. Newsweek called it “revelatory,” The Wall Street Journal called it “beguiling,” and feminist author Naomi Wolf called it “laid back, readable brilliance.”
Orenstein has lived and worked around the world and particularly in Haiti, where she traveled as a folklore student and journalist in the 1990s, during a time of political upheaval. As a result of that experience, she has reported extensively on Haiti; organized fact-finding delegations for journalists, scholars and lawmakers; and consulted with the United Nations human rights mission. In 1996, she worked with a team of international human rights lawyers to assist victims of military and paramilitary violence in seeking justice. She investigated tortures, rapes, political assassinations and massacres; interviewed hundreds of victims, witnesses and alleged criminals; and coordinated lawyers’ and victims’ efforts to build cases against their persecutors. She has written about some of these cases and their aftermaths in Haiti and in the United States.
Orenstein has received a Peabody-Gardner Fellowship, Tinker Grant and a Cordier Essay Prize (from Columbia University), and was a finalist for the 2004 Prize for Promise, designed “to identify young women, aged 21-35,of great promise and vision who could... become world leaders in their respective fields.” She is a fellow with The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, a recipient of The Diana P Scott Integrity in Action Award, and a fellow of Echoing Green, which selected The OpEd Project as one of 19 of the most innovative social enterprises worldwide, out of a pool of 1500 applicants.
Why The OpEd Project? An interview with Katie Orenstein
Why did you start The OpEd Project?
The short answer is that the range of voices we hear from in the world is incredibly narrow – and comes from a tiny sliver of the world’s population: mostly western, white, older, privileged and overwhelmingly (85%) male. Which means we’re hearing from only a small fraction of the world’s brains. That’s a big problem for women and for all of us who aren’t being represented – our stories and ideas and perspectives are not being told (sometimes with life and death consequences). But it also suggests a tremendous opportunity for everyone: what would be the return to society if we could harness all that brain power?
The vision of the project is that we would have a much smarter, richer, more interesting world if more people had a voice. What if we could benefit from all the best ideas and brains out there? To offer an analogy: if I were in the finance world, I might say that we have a portfolio called Public Knowledge, and we are surveying the landscape, looking for undiscovered assets for that portfolio – all the brains out there that we aren’t hearing from. Women’s ideas are one of those undiscovered, or undercapitalized assets. But there are other voices – under-represented or unheard voices and brains of all kinds – that we could and should invest in as well.
What sparked the idea?
The longer more specific answer to why I started the OEP is that there was a big debate a few years ago about why so few voices, and especially so few women, in thought leadership positions. Larry Summers, then President of Harvard, gave a controversial speech about why are there so few women in higher math and science, and asked if there could be a question of ‘biological aptitude.’ Around the same time, a syndicated columnist named Susan Estrich accused the LA times of sexism, because they ran so few women on their op-ed page. It started a big debate and media outlets everywhere weighed in: Is it due to sexism? Biology? Socialization? With all the speculation, none of it solved the problem. About that time, I became curious why no one was talking about a more obvious and more solvable part of the problem, which is that women don’t submit to front door forums – like op-ed pages or online commentary sites – with anywhere near the frequency that men do. These forums feed all other media and drive thought leadership, so an absence of women (or other diverse voices) in these forums predicts under-representation on a much larger scale – on TV, in business, in congress, for example. And I thought, why don’t we just get more smart women submitting to these gateway forums?
That’s not rocket science. It’s teachable. What if this is just a numbers problem? What would it take to increase the numbers from 15% -- our current share of voice, as women, whether you are looking at op-ed pages, corporate boards, TV pundits, or congress – to 30%, where most research says a tipping point occurs? What if we could permanently solve the problem?
How did it go from an idea to an organization?
The idea is appealing because it is actually good for the world in expanding circles. It’s good for women – both as individuals, and collectively – to be able to have a bigger voice. It’s good for the organizations, institutions, and causes that these women work on and for – it gives those organizations and causes more visibility and power. And it is good for society – because if we get to hear the best ideas from all the best and most interesting brains (not just the small fraction that currently has access to the world’s microphones) then we’ll have a richer, smarter, better public conversation. Hearing from more voices also means there’s going to be more empathy, a better world. Is that too corny?
Anyway, I didn’t immediately plan to start an organization. I tried to get other people and organizations to do it. But when they didn’t, eventually I began to think I should do it. We had very dramatic results and huge buy-in very early on – including significant media coverage – and it was clear that we had touched a nerve and tapped a need. The momentum was very fast, and before I knew it, we had an organization, albeit one that we have launched on a shoestring budget.
It is an incredibly engaging experience, to be able to approach a problem with the idea of solving it – not improving it, not providing a service, but with the goal of creating an outcome. For me, and for many other people who have joined our organization and community, I think that is an incredibly moving notion.