Respond to this Article April 2005

Silent Femmes

It's not really discrimination that keeps women off the op-ed pages. It's women themselves.

By Amy Sullivan

Oh, come on, said Susan Estrich. For years, the University of Southern California law professor and former Democratic operative had tracked gender imbalance on the op-ed pages of her hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, and she had recently lobbied its newly installed editorial page editor Michael Kinsley to feature more female writers. Now, it seemed, the paper was taunting her. The headline on the opinion section one Sunday in mid-February asked, "Where are the great women thinkers?," while the accompanying piece by conservative writer Charlotte Allen--by turns obnoxious and thought-provoking--argued that the ranks of female public intellectuals had been thinned by feminism. This was not exactly what Estrich had in mind when she asked the paper to correct the nearly 4-to-1 ratio between male- and female-authored opinion pieces.

The cartoon version of Estrich would have had plumes of smoke billowing out her ears as she fired off an intemperate email to Kinsley, giving him "ONE MORE CHANCE" to deal with the issue. The email was soon followed by a letter to the editor, circulated to several dozen southern California women for their signatures, asking them to help fight "blatant sex discrimination at the Los Angeles Times," and then forwarded to Kinsley. "I tried…to be nice. I said: Please publish the letter," Estrich later protested in her syndicated column. "Please publish this, I said, or I'll have to send it to Matt Drudge."

A brazen threat is not most people's idea of "nice," and Kinsley, accusing Estrich of blackmail, refused to run the letter. So, as promised, she sent it--and their email correspondence--to Drudge and several other journalists, and the situation only deteriorated further. Although the Times' gender ratio has not improved since the kerfuffle started, Kinsley--in a case of either odd timing or retaliation--found space to publish two op-eds by Estrich's ex-husband, an associate dean at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. Most appallingly, Estrich charged that Parkinson's disease has impaired Kinsley's judgment and ability to do his job.

As fascinating and unseemly as the spat has been, it has ultimately clouded more than it has revealed. Estrich was right about one thing: There simply aren't many recognized opinion-makers who are women. Gender gaps have narrowed in other fields--women have gained ground in computer sciences, math departments, and science labs, and women now constitute the majority of incoming medical school classes. In journalism, too, newsrooms and television studios are filled with more female reporters and--to a lesser extent--editors and producers than ever before. On the op-ed pages of major newspapers, however, the number of female columnists is roughly that of 25 years ago. Political magazines--with the notable exceptions of The Nation and Salon--are run, edited, and written by men (indeed, the masthead of our own magazine, which has launched some of the sharpest pens in journalism, includes only four female names in the list of 36 former editors; that's 11 percent.) Even in that brave new democratizing world of blogs, the professional bloggers all have names like Mickey and Eric and Andrew and Josh.

As a female editor at a political opinion magazine, I've bucked this trend, but I've also worried about the absence of women's voices in my field. With a paltry 10 to 20 percent of opinion pieces in major newspapers written by women, surely editorial page editors could improve their percentages without lowering their standards. Is it the case, however--as Estrich's righteous, old-style-feminist "let us in the door!" cry would have it--that the problem is mainly one of gender bias? When I considered whether to take this job, one of the first questions I asked was why there had been so few female editors at the magazine. The response--women just don't apply for the job--was both surprising and unsatisfying. The disturbing truth is that women's voices aren't rare in political discourse because of blatant sex discrimination; they're rare because women don't raise them. But that's because women themselves have been raised to feel ill-at-ease in the rough-and-tumble, male-dominated world of political expression.

Snap judgment

If the problem was truly a matter of male editors refusing to let women through the door of their "No Girls Allowed" clubhouse, there is an easy enough way to check that: compare the record of editorial pages run by women to those run by men. Two women have presided over major editorial sections in recent years--the late Meg Greenfield at The Washington Post and Gail Collins, the current editorial page editor of The New York Times--and if male bias was largely to blame, we would expect to see more female writers on their op-ed pages. Neither one, however, ran significantly more opinion pieces by women, or featured more regular female columnists, than did their male counterparts.

Where bias does exist, men are not exclusively at fault. Some fascinating studies have documented the extent to which both men and women downgrade female work, particularly when they rely on subjective standards of evaluation. In his recent book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the impact blind auditions have had on the gender composition of symphony orchestras. Since orchestras started requiring musicians to audition behind screens instead of in full-view, the number of women hired has increased fivefold. A study by economists Cecilia Rouse and Claudia Goldin found that the results are even better for women who play what have been traditionally considered "male" instruments like brass and percussion. The same thing happens in art--in studies that switch the nameplates identifying a male or female artist, both men and women always attach higher value to the painting they assume was created by a man. The same phenomenon that happens in symphony orchestras and art galleries undoubtedly happens to editors, who rely on bylines to form quick judgments about what to expect from authors before they read articles.

So, it's possible--even probable--that passive bias by both male and female editors accounts for some of the gender imbalance on editorial pages. But how much does it explain? There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that something else is at work: self-selection. Relatively few women choose to try their hands at political opinion-making. Here at The Washington Monthly, only one out of every 10 submissions we receive is from a woman, and the ratio is even worse among applications for editorial positions; female editorial candidates are out-numbered 20-to-1. Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt told me he sees much the same pattern, estimating that "at least eight out of every 10 op-ed submissions we receive are from men." Collins, his New York Times counterpart, thinks it's a matter of the available talent pool: "The pool is weighted toward men….Within that, the number of people who are capable of writing 700 words twice a week and making it sound fresh and interesting…that's a very tiny pool." "Believe me," she says with the sigh of someone who answers this question every day, "I am really, really well aware that we have only one woman columnist right now."

To get a sense of how pervasive and consistent the self-selection truly is, you have to look beyond the op-ed pages to other areas of political discourse. Seventy percent of letters to the editor are written by men. The same consistent 70 percent of callers to talk radio shows (and not testosterone-driven rage-fests, but "Talk of the Nation" and "The Diane Rehm Show" on NPR) are men. A full 75 percent of political blog readers are men. Women's voices are not completely missing, but once they reach the invisible--but remarkably stable--threshold of around 25 percent, they disappear from political conversations. Faster than you can say "Larry Summers," some people will take a look at those statistics and conclude that women are innately less interested in offering their political opinions. Perhaps. But the same socialization that leads people to devalue the artistic and written work of women also teaches women that their opinions should be kept to themselves.

Shrinking violets

Any parent can tell you that behavioral differences exist even in infants and that they are often gender-specific. Are there naturally aggressive girls as well as naturally nurturing boys? Of course. But socialization is based on the images we have of the "average" girl or boy; we take what we think we know about how girls and boys act, and then reinforce those ideas through parenting, education, and other cultural influences. When the natural aggressiveness of boys is exacerbated by our own gender stereotypes, what begins as a small gap differentiating girls and boys widens into a gulf. By the time the average girl makes her way through the gauntlet of adolescent conditioning, she is far less likely than her brother to become an idea-warrior.

This came as no surprise to education professors David Sadker and his late wife Myra, whose decades of scientific research form the core of what we know about gender and education. After logging countless hours observing classroom settings--from elementary to high school--they noticed the same thing everywhere they went. Although boys and girls are equally verbal when they enter elementary school, by the time they graduate 13 years later, boys will have spoken far more often in class than girls; the ratio, the Sadkers determined, was an astounding 8-to-1. Conventional wisdom assumes that girls are just naturally more hesitant to answer questions and volunteer ideas. But reams of social science research--including a report by the American Association of University Women that examined more than 1,300 studies on girls and education--show that the difference is due instead to subtle, but firm, lessons about who gets to offer opinions and how.

What researchers found should track closely with memories of your second-grade self. Those are the years in which children learn how to participate in group discussions. The teacher explains that to maintain an orderly conversation and allow everyone to speak, students should raise their hands when they have something to say and wait to be called on. Simple enough. But what happens next? Usually, the teacher poses a question to kick off the discussion, and several children raise their hands with answers. As the conversation continues, one or more of the boys, either overly enthusiastic about his point or merely impatient, calls out his comment without waiting to be chosen by the teacher. She might stop him and remind everyone of the rule--raise your hand and wait to be called first--but often she just lets him go ahead. It is less disruptive, after all, than letting him jump up and down, waving his hand, and yelling, "Oooh, ooh, me!" But if a girl bursts out with a thought, the teacher's response changes. The Sadkers report that teachers almost always chastise girls who violate the rules. After all, teachers rely on girls--their "good students"--to remain quiet and maintain order in the classroom while teachers focus on the boys, keeping them in line by drawing them into discussions. And so, as the conversation races around them, girls sit, waiting to be called on, first holding up their tired arms with the other, then lowering them, and finally not bothering to raise their hands at all.

This may not match the image most people have of teenage girls, who seem to have an endless stream of opinions and go through their lives narrating running commentaries of everything around them. But that often ends at the classroom door. Peggy Orenstein spent a year with junior high girls in California while writing Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap; she found time and again that girls who were the center of attention in front of their lockers or calling out to friends across the courtyard often became different creatures entirely in class, their posture collapsing behind desks. The reasons are varied--lack of confidence in their ability, fear of appearing too smart and intimidating boys, teacher bias--but the results are usually the same. Even though they have more academic success in junior high and high school than boys, girls are less inclined to take intellectual risks. "Boys never care if they're wrong," one bright teenage girl told Orenstein. "I'm not shy. But it's like, when I get into class, I just…I just can't talk."

Whatever self-confidence survives high school may not last long for women in college. Boston College professor Karen Arnold has tracked high school valedictorians in Illinois and found that at the time of high school graduation, about one in four of both the girls and boys rated themselves as "far above average" in intelligence compared to others their age. After just two years in college, however, while one in four male valedictorians still said they were above average, only four percent of their female counterparts were willing to rate themselves the same way.

It may be no coincidence that a number of pioneering female opinion columnists--including Meg Greenfield, Molly Ivins, Ellen Goodman, Anna Quindlen, and Jodie Allen--attended women's colleges. Allen, who got her start through Meg Greenfield at the Post's Outlook section and writes a business column for U.S. News & World Report, told me that while her college experience was filled with women freely offering opinions, "I bet you if there were men around, we wouldn't have." Even at elite schools, with the most driven, educated young women, the 25-percent rule is in place by this point: At the daily newspapers of top-rated universities, only 10 to 25 percent of opinion columnists are female. While women dominate the increasingly popular arena of college sex columns, men are the ones writing pure opinion pieces, what Allen and her colleagues used to call "thumb-suckers." "I think," she says, "men are more likely to think their thumbs are tasty than women are."

Shout fest

If you were to design the ideal socialization model for girls, it would look something like my childhood. The record Free to Be, You and Me was permanently affixed to the turntable in our house, and the children's book Girls Can Be Anything was a regular in the bedtime rotation. We discussed politics in the kitchen and played baseball (not softball) after dinner. I'll be the first to admit that I was a weird kid, with no lack of confidence (in fact, my parents had to sit me down in kindergarten and explain why it wasn't okay to turn in my assignments pre-graded, complete with gold stars and "Very good, Amy!" penned at the top, even if I did think it was saving my teacher the trouble). I was one of the few high school girls in history who thought that being smart was not only acceptable, but would also actually make me more attractive to my male classmates. Although deathly shy, I dominated class discussions and generally made a know-it-all nuisance of myself.

Now that I edit the type of publication that serves as a feeder for major newspapers and magazines in search of columnists, I've seen plenty to convince me that self-selection is a major reason that women's voices are generally absent from our pages--I can count on one hand the number of pitches I have received from women. But it's also clear to me that this profession is tougher than it needs to be for women. I've interviewed a dozen women who have worked in opinion journalism over several decades, and we all have similar stories and frustrations. To even get to this point, we've survived the socialization gauntlet and are more opinionated and driven than most women. But once we get in the boys' club, we find out that's not enough--we also have to play by the boys' rules.

Almost every woman I talked to dreads editorial meetings, the time when writers float their ideas and vigorously debate the content of future issues. The meetings can be intellectually stimulating and exhilarating, but they also involve a lot of yelling, with each writer fighting to be heard. For many women who have become writers precisely because they find it easier to argue in a written format, the meetings can be exhausting. If she's willing to yell, and to keep yelling until everyone stops and listens to her, she then gets to defend her proposed article against withering attacks from colleagues who are trained to tear it apart (and sometimes see the exercise as sport). If "not interesting, not new, not worth publishing" is the declared verdict, she is supposed to persist in efforts to convince the room. But it takes sterner stuff than most of us are made of to set your shoulders for one more go-'round and head back into the fray. While there are outliers, the average woman just doesn't enjoy full-contact political sparring as much as the average man.

Gail Collins is optimistic that the gender gap in punditry is nothing that a little time and socialization can't change. "I don't think this will last," she told the Los Angeles Times last month. "The person in my job in 15 or 20 years I don't think will be having this conversation." But socialization doesn't end in the classroom--even at the level of elite journalism, well-intentioned men and women reinforce male norms when it comes to assigning stories, promoting women on the cover, or ghettoizing women as culture writers. It may be that Michael Kinsley, in a recent column addressing this issue, has come closest to the solution: "Everyone involved should be trying harder, including me."

I tell people all the time that I have the greatest job in the world, and most days it's true. I get paid to talk about politics, noodle over ideas and theories with brilliant colleagues, and then weave words into melodies and themes that are as close as I will ever come to writing music. To succeed, I have learned to adapt: to yell even though I hate yelling, to keep a check on my more personal writing style, and to aggressively and stubbornly defend my ideas. It works, but it leaves me winded. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish we could all simply raise our hands.

Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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