Opinionmaking - a male bastion

WHEN Al Campanis suggested on ``Nightline'' a little over a year ago that blacks in sports just might not have ``the necessities'' to be in management, the establishment was outraged and the messenger sacked. The case was an interesting one because Mr. Campanis inadvertently put his finger on a point that is often conveniently ignored. That is, now that blacks are so visible on the playing field, it is easy to forget that in terms of power and influence in professional athletics, they remain relatively weak. There is at least a rough analogy to the paucity of women among America's opinionmakers. For all their activity now outside the home, women are by and large still excluded from the select group that constructs our national reality.

I am not even focusing here on the manifest underrepresentation of women in formal positions of power. Rather I am pointing to a less evident but perhaps more significant exclusion: that of women from the informal ranks of those who shape the way we think. In the political domain such opinionmakers are those who, because of their access to the news media, define what is important and decide how a public figure or event should be viewed. It is, then, through the prism of their perspective that the American people interpret the facts.

To be sure, our national newspapers and networks have by now assigned women to be fact gatherers and disseminators. There are quite a few women reporters around and, at least at one local television station, women who anchor the news. But for a female to play the role of commentator, expert, or analyst - that is, to be the resident sage - is still disturbingly rare.

One might, for example, mistake presidential politics for an activity in an all-male club. But women will vote in November, in far larger numbers than men. Why then are television's stock experts on presidential politics almost invariably men? Whether on weekly news shows or for spot analyses, say the morning after a primary, men, much more often than women, are center stage. Even the Public Broadcasting Service, generally more sensitive to the need for a diversity of views, has few women among its regulars.

Or consider the recent summit. Who was put on the tube to shape our collective reaction? Overwhelmingly, they were men. Men from Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Brookings - all endowed with the authority to tell us what to think. The implicit message is that there are few if any women in the academy qualified to take on the task.

The same troubling imbalance exists in the print media. The New York Times is only the most obvious example. On matters of national politics men are cited as experts far more frequently than women. Of regular Times columnists, only one is a female. And the op-ed figures are downright embarrassing. Male contributors have woefully outnumbered women contributors.

The question, then, remains why? Why, given the changes that women in fact have wrought over the past two decades, are their ranks among the nation's opinionmakers still so thin? Several possibilities come to mind. First, it is a matter of habit. Those who use experts find it more convenient to call on men because that's how they have always done it and because, admittedly, there are generally more male experts available. Second, it is playing safe. Drawing on known commodities from familiar establishments is less risky than taking a chance on a new face. Third, there is our conception of who is wise. Historically, the voice of authority has been deep - reflecting the traditional belief that men know better. And finally the pattern persists because of inertia. We - men and women alike - need to do more to change it.

None of this is meant to imply that men have botched the job. Nor is there evidence to suggest that when more women become opinionmakers the nature of our national discourse will undergo a radical change.

Yet what is increasingly understood is that the female experience is different from that of the male. This difference has an impact, not only on how we think, but on how we behave. Indeed if current trends persist, the different voting patterns between men and women - the ``gender gap'' - will have a major impact on this year's election.

The fact that women's voices are, despite recent inroads, still heard so much less frequently than men's thus has policy consequences not only for women, but for the body politic as a whole.

Barbara Kellerman, dean of graduate studies and research at Fairleigh Dickinson University, is author and editor of many books on the American presidency and political leadership.

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