When the Women’s Media Center released this year’s Women in U.S. Media report, few were surprised to hear that the average newspaper columnist was in fact a 60-year-old dude. The publishers surveyed included the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and had on staff some 105 male columnists, versus just 38 female ones.
It’s not a shocking statistic. If women are more present in the media now than they were, say, 30 years ago, it’s been roundly shown by various studies that gender equity in journalism is still a far-off dream, and not one shared by all in the newsroom. Still, 105 guys versus 38 chicks? Really?
Of all the causes for the imbalance, ingrained societal conservatism seems the most responsible, something visible even outside newspaper columns. As Slate has reported, male sources are quoted three times as frequently as female ones in front-page stories in the New York Times; when a voice of authority is sought, the gut reaction of the average hack (whether a she or a he) is to mic up a bloke. This tendency is reflected in the types of protagonists that dominate Hollywood movies. A study by the University of Southern California examined the 500 most popular movies released between 2007 and 2012, and found that of the 4,475 speaking characters on screen, only 28.4 percent were female. 2012 was in fact the worst year they analyzed, revealing the lowest percentage of on-screen females. So it’s a certified thing: Women just don’t get the airtime and pen-time that guys do. The situation is even worse for queer writers, writers of color and writers from low-income backgrounds. Clearly, gender bias permeates both popular and intellectual culture, even if, as I suspect is often the case, that bias is unintentional.
When it comes to female representation in the media, it’s important to pick one’s battles. Concerned though I am about the skewed Hollywood gender dynamic, I’d be a terrible filmmaker and can’t act at all, so I will leave that issue for others to sort out. But I can write, and like to do so on a fairly regular basis for print and online media outlets. My new thing, manifestly, is op-eds. Previously, I’d specialized in food and culture journalism, but this year, with my first semester at Yale underway, I thought I’d try and head in a new direction.
The trouble is, the op-ed is a difficult beast to master. Editors look for a staunchly uncompromising viewpoint — the clue is in the name, “Opinion”, singular. You’re meant to have a stance on something, preferably controversial, and defend that stance with your teeth gritted, enduring if need be the reams of antagonistic comments in the space below your piece.
Unfortunately, there are relatively few things that I have fixed or overtly polemical views about. For instance, as a Brit, I have a volatile position on the UK’s policy regarding the Islamic State. Sometimes I think we should bomb them; at others I question the validity of the West’s decision to get involved at all. Another example: the current Hong Kong protests. One morning, I’ll gush, “I’m so with you on this one, you go guys.” On another, I’ll find myself musing, “But y’know, the Chinese government’s not going to offer you any concessions, so I’d just call it a day.”
This being the case, I’m not naturally the world’s best op-ed composer. But this raises the question — is it just me who finds it a difficult journalistic form to fill? Or is the op-ed itself slightly, well, sexist? At this point, the waters get choppy. Clearly, there should be a space in newspapers for people to state their opinion (singular) and explain why they are sticking to it. Readers don’t necessarily want to read a piece written by someone unconvinced as to the best course of action. Now, the last thing I want to do is say that women think like X and men like Y, and that op-eds are for Y-thinkers. Absolutely not. I wholly accept that women can be brilliant opinion writers — take the Guardian’s Barbara Ellen, or the New York Times’ Vanessa Barbara. You can read an op-ed and not know that it’s been written by a woman; female journalists frequently show themselves to be entirely capable of using print to defend one particular viewpoint, however controversial.
But I have noticed that amongst my peer group, my female friends tend to hold much more flexible opinions on current affairs than those held by many of my male friends. The reason for that difference is incredibly complex — but it seems possibly related to the fact that we less regularly look to women as sources of factual authority. It’s not that the op-ed itself is necessarily fundamentally sexist, but rather that it favors a certain confidence of thought, that some women, including me, have been less rigorously trained to adopt. The greater flexibility of some of my girlfriends’ views doesn’t mean that their analysis of what’s going on is lacking in insight — quite the opposite. Having a more fluid approach, one that eschews black-and-white binaries, is a healthy intellectual stance. But such openness and fluidity means that the op-ed, for a thinker of that sort, can be especially tricky. It seems that few editors want an op-ed wearing its indecision on its sleeve. They don’t want writers who admit from the get-go that either a) They are somewhere in between the two (or more) sides of a debate, or b) They haven’t even decided where they stand. Or at least that’s what I think I think.