Why Women Gas Off Less Than Men in Print



Just as there are very few women in the higher echelons of corporate America, as it turns out, there are also very few women on the op-ed pages of American media. A recent Columbia Journalism Review story by Erika Fry points out that women wrote only 20 percent of the op-eds in the nation's leading newspapers such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal between September to December last year. What's more, she notes:

 women were practically absent in the debate of many hard news subjects, with their opinions accounting for 11 percent of commentaries on the economy, 13 percent on international politics, 14 percent on social action and 16 percent on security. Perhaps just as striking, women produced just over half—53 percent—of commentaries on "women's issues"

The standard explanation of course would be that editors are sexist and prefer male over female writers. And if women were being rejected at a higher rate than men, that would make sense. But there is no evidence of that. The truth is that women actually submit far fewer pieces than men. For example, Sue Horton, the op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times notes that she gets 100 submissions a day, the overwhelming majority of which are men. In 2008, The Washington Post's op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, estimated the rate was nine to one.

Women couldn't be writing less because they can't write. After all, even Sage Larry Summers questioned only women's math and science ability, not their writing ability. Fry suggests that women write less because they are far more picky than men about when and what they choose to write about. She notes:

anecdotally, submissions from women are more likely to be from writers who are particularly informed, while a much greater share of submissions from men are "dinner party op-eds"—pieces written because the author has an opinion on the subject, not because of any particular standing or expertise. Editors shared similar stories about why solicitation efforts sometimes fail: Brewington and Horton both say women are more likely to turn down requests for a solicited piece, often because they are too busy to do it well. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to accept the invitation without hesitation.

But why do women choose to opine only when they know something about a subject or have something interesting to say? It could be their social conditioning that discourages them from mouthing off just for the heck of it. It causes them to hesitiate to commit words to paper unless they feel that they have something really important to say, unlike men, who suffer from no equivalent qualms because they are raised to be self-confident. I think there is something to that.

But the more plausible explanation in my non-scientific opinion that I will now mouth off is that women choose to write less for the same reason that they choose to pursue CEOship in companies less: They are not interested in worldly success (for many possible reasons), and therefore simply don't get the same thymotic high that men do when they become CEOs or see their byline in print. Therefore, female writers are perfectly willing to sit back and pursue other goals unless something really, really grabs their interest and attention. They are more interested in quality assignments that bring them inner satisfaction than quick-and-dirty pieces that get their name in circulation.

One could conclude from all this that this is just another way in which women are more sensible than men. But then that would only invite an angry reaction from H&R's predominantly young, white, male readers eager to be in print.

So go for it.

(For more fodder for attack, check out my recent piece along the above lines, "Jack Welch vs. Feminists: The Dumb Debate Over Female CEOs.")

H/T: Virginia Postrel