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.
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.
It's important to make this distinction between the writers a newspaper hires to give their take on the world and those people who may submit an op-ed or two a year on subjects in their area of expertise. [Editor's note: The Christian Science Monitor's Opinion page does not have columnists. Women account for 30 percent of oped contributors so far in 2008.]
A publication's staffed opinion writers' pool is a better instrument to judge its fairness, its dedication to diversity. A paper's roster of staff writers reflects its assessment of who is qualified to interpret the world. Using that rule, we must deduce that mainstream media believe men to be far more capable of analytical, reasoned thought. The responsibility for hiring smart, gifted writers of both sexes and all colors and viewpoints belongs to the editors – and it is their failure when they don't.
But the problem goes beyond the bylines. The dismal representation of women on the op-ed pages is just the tip of the iceberg. Research from the Annenberg Public Policy Institute found that just 3 percent of the "clout" positions – the owners, publishers, and other ultimate decisionmakers – are women. The net effect of this is that almost everything we know about our world is cast through the male perspective. Women are just beginning to catch on to this fact.
This lopsided state of affairs was one of the reasons the WMC was created. Through our Progressive Women's Voices program, our participants are given rigorous training that enables them to write and place opinion pieces in major newspapers.
We're not the only ones. The White House Project's SheSource.org program, the dedicated OpEd Project, the National Women's Editorial Forum, and Women's eNews all also tackle the supply problem by equipping women with the tools and confidence to submit op-eds. These organizations also play an important role in reminding editors and executives of the importance of women's voices on the opinion pages.
As long as editors can look in their inboxes and see that the men are writing and submitting at a higher rate than women, they can avoid tackling the institutional imbalances that perpetuate at the highest levels of media. Women have a responsibility to write and submit to the op-ed pages, to be a part of the national political debate.
But that isn't the whole story. Until editors, publishers, and owners demonstrate that they value women's voices and perspectives by hiring women as top-level decisionmakers and regular commentators, women will continue to look at newspaper opinion pages as a medium that does not speak to or for them.