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Voices too often missing in op-ed land: women's

It's up to women and editors to create a better gender balance.

By Carol Jenkins / July 16, 2008

New York

As newspapers struggle for readership, publishers seeking to expand their market need look no further than their opinion pages to see who is missing: women.

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The absence of women as op-ed writers is perhaps the most telling marker of the status of women in media. The opinion pages reflect the work of our most respected thought leaders, they impact public policy, they drive our political process. To have women missing in action on these pages reinforces a pernicious, if subliminal, view of a woman's perceived capabilities.

There's no question that women are missing – in droves. The primary responsibility for this rests with opinion editors, who have the ultimate say on what appears on their pages; but women also have an obligation to participate more assertively.

Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell recently noted that fewer than 14 percent of the op-eds published by the paper this year were by women, and an equal percent by minorities. In a study looking specifically at op-ed pieces written by academics, researchers at Rutgers University found that almost all of the opinions came from men: 97 percent in The Wall Street Journal, 82 percent in The New York Times, and 78 percent in the Newark Star-Ledger.

The Women's Media Center advocates the inclusion of women's voices and perspective at every level in the media, including the op-ed pages. When we speak with editors about the glaring absence of women from the opinion pages, we invariably hear variations on a common question: Is the problem one of supply or demand?

Editors often point to their e-mail inbox to show that the hurdle lies with women, who account for a smaller percentage of op-ed submissions than men. Ruth Marcus, one of two female staff columnists at the Post, believes it is women's reluctance to speak out, rather than "male chauvinist editors." It's a variation on what the Brookings Institution calls the "ambition gap."

However, we agree with Ms. Howell, whose analysis of the Post's op-ed imbalance blamed the numbers on the "tradition" of hiring white men to write and the failure of more women and people of color to submit. Overall, the figures on women syndicated opinion writers have been locked under 25 percent for years now. At the Post, 17 of their 19 weekly or biweekly columnists are men. This pattern is repeated in many major publications in the United States.