I like to read opinion columnists. I find that by reading a diversity of viewpoints, it helps refine my own. After all, if you are only exposed to people who think like you, you’ll never get a full picture of the issues. Diverse voices leads to more robust outcomes.
That is why I’m so disturbed by what I see in the opinion pages of traditional media–or rather what I don’t see: Female opinion writers.
I first noticed a dearth of female perspectives on the pages of my local daily paper which boasts the second largest circulation in North Carolina, the Raleigh-based News & Observer. For those of you not in North Carolina a little demography: the area’s rapidly increasing population reflects that Raleigh is the state capital and the center of NC political power (the NC General Assembly & government agencies), the hub of high-tech business (the Research Triangle Park), a lure for acclaimed medical care (Duke, UNC) and with a core of higher education and research institutes (Duke, UNC, NCSU, NCCU). In other words, it’s a pretty active geographic spot.
Yet, despite our progressiveness, the main newspaper for the region has no female opinion columnists as well as no female community columnists (who also provide opinionated, non-oped page commentary). It prompted me to wonder if this was an isolated occurrence of this one paper and region. Sadly no. I did a survey of the websites of 7 major circulation North Carolina newspapers to see how many female writers were listed as opinion columnists on their website. The results shocked me:
|North Carolina||Women||Total||% Women|
|News & Observer (Raleigh)||0||3||0%|
|News & Record (Greensboro)*||0||7||0%|
|Herald Sun (Durham)**||1||8||13%|
- Method: Persons identified as opinion columnists of that publication on opinion section of website accessed 1/27/15
- * = no clear listing of regular columnists on the website; listing of columnists for the most recent Sunday print edition (1/25/15) used
- ** = Amy Laura Hall, an Associate Professor of Divinity at Duke University, is identified as “Guest columnist”
Amy Laura Hall, the one woman I found listed on the newspaper websites as an opinion columnist, publishes about once per month in the Durham Herald-Sun and holds a non-newspaper full time position (Associate Professor at Duke). While it was nice to find at least one NC woman publicly acknowledged by a newspaper as an opinion columnist, consider for perspective that the Herald-Sun has a circulation of just over 50K while the state’s largest two daily newspapers have significantly higher readership. The Charlotte Observer circulation hovers ~180K while the News & Observer is not far behind at ~175K.
I wondered how North Carolina papers compared to the national opinion sources in inclusiveness. Here’s what I found:
|New York Times||2||11||18%|
|Los Angeles Times||2||6||33%|
|Wall Street Journal||3||8||38%|
I keep hearing ‘the liberal media’ bemoaned as if it were universal truth, but these stats don’t reflect bastions of liberalism.
My survey is informal and likely wouldn’t pass academic muster, but the results are fully consistent with the formal studies which have been done, showing anywhere between 5% and 30% female representation among opinion writers depending on the papers surveyed. (Ref 1)
If women are half the population nationally (51% in NC), then why are more of our opinions not found in these public forums? Men dominate Congress (80%) and the NC General Assembly (78%). If we’re also absent from the major media outlets, then exactly when and where are our perspectives being heard? If we’re not a consistent and robust part of public debate, then there is little potential to influence policy. We remain invisible citizens–affected greatly by policy, yet not contributing in meaningful visible ways to the public debate.
If the appeal to simple social equity doesn’t move you, then consider economics. In central North Carolina where I live (dubbed The Triangle), there are over 800,000 women and we make a pretty darn good demographic for any business interest: 42% have at least a bachelor’s degree and 64% are employed—49% of those in professional positions, which is a higher proportion than Triangle men. (Ref 2) It’s no secret that papers rely on advertising more than circulation to keep the newsroom going and they should heed the fact that women make or influence 85 percent of all purchasing decisions, and purchase over 50 percent of traditional male products, including cars, home improvement services and technology products—all attractive advertising segments. (Ref 3) Any business which ignores half the potential audience demographic (and the very segment advertisers want to target) does so at risk of their own economic demise.
I won’t get into the roots of why there are so few women holding positions as opinion columnists. I’ll leave that to the academicians (Google it and you’ll find multiple theories). Regardless of how we got here, what I want to know is this: What can we do to get women on the opinion pages now? What is the action plan?
I suggest that first, women have to keep submitting their work to editors. It’s hard to keep at it when you’re met most often with rejection–I share this feeling. It’s easy to find yourself asking ‘what’s the point’ when you put your best forward and repeatedly hit the wall. I’ve had some success publishing one-off opeds (USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, among others). I take this as evidence that I just might be articulate enough to string reasoned analysis and thoughts together sufficiently to be publishable. Yet, that holy grail of a steady writing gig has alluded me (and from the statistics, I’d say most other women too).
Still, despite the propensity for rejection, we must continue to write and to submit. We must make ourselves known in numbers–and if we don’t find success as columnists via traditional media, then there is always the blogosphere. Build your brand online. Perhaps some view it as not as prestigious (or as effective), but it is better than remaining silent. When you have knowledge and a message for action burning inside you, to remain silent is painful. We have always had to work a little harder than our male counterparts for the same recognition and compensation; the opinion barrier is yet another classic example of that necessity. Get creative to find a workaround to the challenges. And on the darkest feeling days, take heart that if papers who are already struggling continue to ignore half their readership and advertising demographic, they’ll soon be out of business anyways.
Secondly, newspaper editors (and owners) need to make an effort to diversity their opinion columnists. Cultivate a welcoming environment for female writers. Don’t tell us (as one editor recently told me) that you’d love to add a female columnist, but there is no money for it. This falls flat when we see men being hired into those roles–so money surely must exist somewhere. Don’t try to ‘do us a favor’ by accepting our work only as ‘unpaid’ (non-staff) occasional contributors when you are willing to pay male writers to contribute regularly to your publication as promoted staff columnists.
And here is a key point: don’t expect us to give you more of the same substance you already have. Just like the men among your staff columnists, we have unique life experiences which flavor our viewpoints and our writing styles. Don’t be tempted to edit us down into submission of your status-quo expectations. Don’t pigeon us into writing only about classic ‘women topics’. Loosen up the stylebook on what an opinion piece must look like and see what emerges. Keep in mind, all female writers do not share the same voice–men don’t either. Some of us are liberal and some conservative. We too have unique racial, ethic and economic experiences layered on top of gender. So don’t think if you hire one woman as a columnist, that covers you for representing the entire female perspective. It’s simply not that homogeneous and what you’ve got is one woman’s perspective. Right now, since nearly all female voices are missing from opinion pages in North Carolina, then I suppose having at least one would be considered an improvement. We can chat about diversifying female voices once you have embraced at least one.
Part of me can’t believe I’m writing about this subject in 2015. I’ve run into some fairly absurd glass ceilings in my life, but I truly thought the days of women being treated as if they should be ‘seen but not heard’ were in the past. Think of it….what message does it send to people, especially our young people, when only one gender speaks up on issues which affect us all? Are we not reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes? Is it really that women are good enough to write for the Home & Lifestyle pages, but not for the Opinion pages? Come now, we can do better.
It comes down to this: if women are not presented publicly as having valid, reasoned, and intelligent opinions, there will be no further progress towards the societal shift on gender issues which is a fundamental underpinning before real equality occurs. It’s time for ‘the liberal media’ to act a little more like the reputation.
1. Where Are the Women? The Presence of Female Columnists in U.S. Opinion Pages Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly June 2014 vol. 91 no. 2 289-307 and The OpEd Project 2012 report
2. Statistics for the Triangle Metropolitan Statistical area, Institute for Women’s Policy Research http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/the-status-of-women-in-the-triangle-metropolitan-area-north-carolina/at_download/file
3. Marketing to women: 30 stats to know, Marketing Daily, http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/170413/marketing-to-women-30-stats-to-know.html