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Adventures in Opinion Writing: No Easy Answers

Why are there fewer female opinion writers? Another possible factor.

- March 14, 2005

I was going to title this column "I Am Woman, Hear Me Instinctively Seek Consensus," but it didn't sound right, and in my case it would almost certainly have been a lie. When I was 8 or 9, I routinely told people I wanted to be a lawyer because my mother would ritually end our near-daily parent-kid spats with the usual rhetorical deus ex machina—"because I said so!"—and an observation that I would probably grow up to be an attorney because I "liked to argue so much." She meant it as an insult, but I took it as a flattering career recommendation—an early indicator, perhaps, of a latent narcissism better suited to media navel-gazing than practicing law.

As it also happens, I still like a good argument, and as a result, I can't help but feel a twitchy personal disconnect upon reading explanations for the disproportionate male-to-female ratio of opinion columnists in major U.S. newspapers that seem to imply that women are uncomfortable expressing strong opinions. If you've been following the recent long (and sometimes ugly) battle between Susan Estrich and Michael Kinsley regarding Kinsley's supposed negligence in failing to hire female columnists for the L.A. Times editorial pages, you've probably seen that already (though not from Kinsley, who appears to have won the showdown). The other favorite explanation is institutional sexism: the old white men only want to hire other old white men. As with most sweeping conclusions, there are probably individual cases where both are partially or even entirely true, but the lack of crucial nuance undermines the stand-alone credibility of either as a broad explanation.

In what was the second "most emailed" New York Times column of the day yesterday (the real determinant of professional advancement at the Gray Lady, if you're wondering), Maureen Dowd wrote, "Men enjoy verbal dueling. As a woman, I told Howell [Raines], I wanted to be liked—not attacked." Dowd goes on to explain that she got over the need to be liked, but adds, "guys don't appreciate being attacked by a woman... Men take professional criticism more personally when it comes from a woman." As a result, she says men tend to respond with personal criticisms. "I'm often asked how I can be so 'mean'—a question that Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn't get." If Dowd is right, then perhaps the problem isn't that women are uncomfortable expressing strong opinions, but that the resulting criticism from people who disagree is harsher and more personal. The disincentives to express those opinions are stronger.

There is, for example, one particular vein of criticism that I've only ever seen directed toward women: the total non-sequitur that uses a woman's sexual desirability as a rebuttal, or treats any evidence at all of sexuality as an implicit weaknesses. In plainer language, that translates to "you're a dirty slut no one wants to sleep with" or "you fight like a girl." If you're a woman and neither of those insults bother you, the effect is vaguely comic. A website critical of my former blog, Gawker.com, once crowed that if I continued upon my degenerate career path I'd end up a married suburban mother in New Jersey. I'll admit that the "New Jersey" part gave me pause, but the married with kids part just struck me as bizarrely irrelevant. (I'm also having trouble imagining the same supposed insult directed toward any of the male writers I know that wouldn't result in snickers or sheer incomprehension.)

There's also the theory that women are more sensitive to criticism, to which Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds responds, "is there really a difference there? If I were a woman, would I have been more hurt when [Newsweek's] Steven Levy called me an 'ankle biter?' Should I have been?" Probably not, but I don't know any women who'd be horribly offended at "ankle-biter." It's really more the "slutty ankle-biter who needs to stay in the kitchen" comments that are offensive.

The blogosphere, which consists almost entirely of opinion writing has also come under fire, as the most high profile bloggers tend to be male. "Does the blogosphere have a diversity problem?" the aforementioned Steven Levy asks in this week's issue. Reporting on a recent blogging conference he writes, "a couple of the women at the conference—bloggers MacKinnon and Halley Suitt—looked around and saw that there weren't many other women in attendance...They were, however, representative of the top 100 blogs according to the Web site Technorati—a list dominated by bigmouths of the white-male variety."

Blogger Halley Suitt suggests that it's an issue of white people linking to other white people, (and by extension, I presume, men linking to other men.) "It appears that some clubbiness is involved," concludes Levy.

And he may be right, but I'd wager that it's not the sort of clubbiness he implies it is. It's a reflection of another sort of clubbiness that's much more widely acknowledged and also helps explain why there are fewer female opinion writers at major newspapers: the opinion pages of most major newspapers and most high profile blogs cover political, technological and/or economic issues—fields that are all heavily male-dominated.

There's certainly no lack of female bloggers overall. LiveJournal, which at 5.5 million users, has the largest user base of any blogging software package reports that 67.2% of its users are female and 32.8% are male. But they're overwhelmingly between the ages 15 and 19. What do 15 to 19 year olds blog about? With a minority percentage of exceptions, not politics, technology or economics. Most teenagers are blogging about their personal lives, and minus a compelling and/or unusual story, personal blogs are not as well trafficked as topical blogs.

It's exceedingly difficult to quantify the number of women writing about a given topic (especially if they're not being published in print, or published to a very small audience on the web) but you can loosely extrapolate based on representation in the fields about which they're writing. Is it really surprising that there are fewer female columnists or high profile female bloggers writing about topics that are traditionally male domains, statistically speaking? I'd like to think that there are just as many women writing about politics, economics and technology as there are men, but having worked in all of those fields prior to going into media my anecdotal experience tells me there probably aren't because there certainly aren't as many women working in those fields.

We can, as Maureen Dowd did yesterday, encourage women to speak up and express their opinions, but we also need to acknowledge that gender imbalances on the editorial page simply may be reflective of larger gender imbalances in the professional realms associated with the topics most commonly editorialized.

Prior to Gawker, I wrote a blog that primarily discussed foreign policy and finance with little or no mention of my personal life. (The now-defunct Forbes ASAP wrote a blurb about it and described it as a "venture capital blog") It wasn't remotely as heavily trafficked as Gawker, but I had no problem getting it linked or read. The blog may have gotten a decent reception because I am brashly opinionated and any girly cookie-baking impulses I have are usually in the service of creating more ammunition for a food fight. But it's also telling that my name wasn't prominently displayed on the site and a small, but not insignificant percentage of my reader email had a recurring theme: "Oh. Sorry. I thought you were a guy."

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor in chief of mediabistro.



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