National Post Where are all the opinionated women?

National Post - Wednesday March 30th, 2011

Barbara Kay, National Post · Mar. 30, 2011 | Last Updated: Mar. 30, 2011 4:03 AM ET

How are women faring in journalism? Not as well as in nursing -about 100% female -but pretty darn well compared with coal mining and nuclearreactor tending, where, sad to say, female representation is nil and women candidates continue to pound on that stone curtain, demanding entry in vain.

In a survey released last week, the International Women's Media Foundation in Washington found that women constitute 41% of senior anchors, writers, editors and producers, but that world-wide, two-thirds of top governance and reporting jobs were held by men.

In Canada, women in journalism are at parity or exceed male representation in middle management, sales, production, design and administration. But as in the U.S., they are under-represented in top management -and opinion writing. In 2008, out of 654 opinion columns (often described in the industry as "oped" articles) in top American newspapers, 575 were written by men, 79 by women (80 by minorities).

Feminists can't handle the truth: Women aren't particularly fond of opinion writing. A few years ago, Maureen Dowd, the New York Times's only regular female opinion columnist, ended a column on the subject rather hilariously: "I have no doubt there are plenty of brilliant women who would bring grace and guts to our nation's op ed pages ... We just need to find and nurture them." Hilariously, not to mention patronizingly, because she certainly wasn't sought out or nurtured, and it's the last thing any opinion writer worth her salt needs. If those "brilliant women" aren't sucking up multiple rejections and continuing to pester editors, they're in the wrong business.

Catherine Orenstein would disagree. A prolific and successful writer, Orenstein has made a second career out of nurturing prospective women opinion writers through The OpEd Project she founded. Hundreds of women take her seminars, which can cost up to $5,000 for a group.

But this project begs the question: Why do women need remedial workshops to write a 750-word opinion piece, but not men?

After all: Women and men both go to university; they both learn how to write decent essays; an op-ed isn't rocket science; it's just a mini-essay with a news hook. Anyone with basic writing skills and a point to make can do it. Orenstein's students are only taking her course because they are shy about writing in a field for which chutzpah is a sine qua non, and hoping she will magically infuse them with it.

So coddling these women for profit is counter-productive and even disingenuous. An expensive seminar may give them a simple technical template (here it is for free: news hook, thesis, evidence, pre-emptive smackdown of opposition's primary argument, conclusion), but it won't give them the conviction or the disciplined aggression they'll need to hold readers' attention and respect.

Fewer than 25% of submissions to comment editors come from women. But it isn't just newspaper comment sections they avoid. It's all thesis-driven writing, including literary reviews. The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's Magazine: Their ratio of male to female writers ranges from 2.6: 1 to 3.6: 1. In the 2010 New York Review of Books, there were 462 pieces by men, and 79 by women. These are all liberal cultural organs. It is inconceivable that they would privilege male over females writers on principle. For this is the one area in which anything but a merit standard would constitute aesthetic and intellectual suicide. For definitive proof that women control their own writing agenda, consider: only 1015% of Wikipedia editors, all volunteers, are women. There's clearly no conspiracy afoot here. It's self-selection -at least it is here in the West. And hardly surprising, when you consider that for the past 40 years the feminist movement has made such a fetish of "narrative" and "feeling" and the value of personal experience over evidence-based knowledge that many women opinion writers think their duty lies in promoting women's interests rather than amassing credible data to prove a thesis.

Under-representation of women in certain media fields is a "dog bites man" story. What do all male-dominated fields, including opinion writing, have in common? Risk-taking (see under coal-mining and nuclear reactor tending). What do all female-dominated jobs have in common? Nurturing and/or security.

Women are under-represented in top governance in all high-pressure, time and energy-gobbling professions, because women privilege family time over maximal career ambitions.

And women are under-represented in opinion writing, both polemical and literary, because it is mostly freelance, the nature of the business inspires insecurity and they don't enjoy competitive data-mining, or duking it out in public with testosterone-amped opponents (not to mention ruthless readers).

And, of course, because in general, unlike men, they take criticism and rejection personally. I hope I didn't make any of the ladies cry.