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Let’s play a little game of free association. If I say “opinion writer”, what comes to mind? Is it, perhaps, an older gentleman wearing a tie?

If so, chances are it’s not just coincidence or the collective unconscious: a recent survey by Women’s Media Center and The 4th Estate Project found that, in America, three quarters of election coverage is written by men.

And lest the apologist brigade fire up and accuse WMC of selectiveness or only surveying niche publications to influence the end result, they surveyed 35 major newspapers from across the USA: “Excluding blogs and opinion columns, there were 1,337 articles that discussed the presidential election between April 16 to August 25 and 1,679 bylined articles from January 1 to April 15, encompassing the period of the GOP primary period. Any article with two bylines, the gender of the first name was coded for the entire article.”

(The 4th Estate Project also found that the majority of newspaper coverage of ‘women’s issues’ - reproductive rights, for example - featured quotes from men, rather than the women whose bodies had become the political battleground.)

Regrettably, it doesn’t take a study to demonstrate the lack of gender balance in journalism: a casual browse of most major newspapers’ pages will tend to reveal a great deal more male photo bylines than female.

Still, while a result such as the WMC’s findings might not have been surprising were the survey carried out last century, it is a rather stark reminder of how far we have to go when it comes to gender equity - particularly when you consider that it has been a major issue in the field for over a decade: the International Federation of Journalists were holding conferences on the matter back in 2001, and UNESCO distributed a booklet, Getting The Balance Right: Gender Equality In Journalism, in 2009.

“Well,” you might say, “that’s America. It’s different there, there are just more people. Maybe the results of the study were unfairly skewed.”

Okay then, sport, how do you explain the similar situation in the UK? The Guardian has just launched a study - joining forces with MIT media lab and data scientist Lynn Cherny - that aims to provide “the most comprehensive, high resolution dataset available on news content by gender and audience interest”. Like the WMC’s survey, their study will look at every article published by the major UK papers - Guardian, Telegraph, and Daily Mail - between June 2011 and July 2012. 

Of particular interest to me was the Guardian study’s initial findings regarding opinion writing. As they note, “Opinion sections can shape a society's opinions and therefore are an important measure of women's voices in society.”

The MIT team quoted The Byline Project’s 2011 survey results, which found that women wrote 20% of oped in the US, while in the UK they scored a slightly more robust 26%.

So, it must be said, how do we fare down here on Prisoner Island?

Cam Sexenheimer, a Melbourne-based advertising/PR “dude” (his words) took it upon himself to carry out an ongoing survey of The Age’s opinion pages over the past five months. So far, he has found that, since he began tallying the Opinion page’s gender balance, 343 articles were written by men, and 139 by women.

Two of those pieces were written by me, from pitches I submitted, so I asked The Age’s opinion editor, Sushi Das, about the gender balance (or lack thereof) in opinion writing. Specifically, I wanted to know if she felt male voices were over-represented in oped.

“Yes. The majority of unsolicited opinion submission received by The Age are from men,” she says. “I suspect this is because men dominate the ranks of senior positions at universities, think tanks, major corporations and other large institutions that generally participate in media debates. In terms of staff columnists, newspapers traditionally have had more male commentators than female commentators. As a female opinion editor this is something I am trying to change.”

Sexenheimer’s survey found that, coincidentally perhaps, the print day with the most even gender split on the Opinion page was Friday - but from an editor’s perspective, Das is only able to work with what she has on any given day. “I prefer to have as many female voices as male voices on the oped page, but this is not always easy. I don't have any hard and fast rules about quotas of women on the page - I aim to get the best opinion pieces on the page every day and if some of them happen to be written by women, that's an added bonus.”

I’ve written a handful of opinion pieces for the Sydney Morning Herald during the timeframe of Sexenheimer’s survey, so I asked SMH opinion editor Joel Gibson how he approaches the Opinion page gender split. “I strive for a 50/50 mix knowing it is usually unachievable,” he says.

Like Das, Gibson believes much of the gender imbalance is due to tradition, and acknowledges that “probably half” of his roster is drawn from senior journalists who carved out a niche at the paper in an era when the majority of columnists were men.

“Put it this way: I've never rejected a woman's pitch because I feel I need a man on the page,” he says. “I do the reverse regularly. But still some days I can't find a good woman, if you know what I mean.”

There’s another complicating factor at hand, however, that is worth considering. Given that the WMC’s study specifically excluded blogs, and the Guardian/MIT survey appears to also be focusing on print, perhaps the issue is one of print media’s stick-in-the-mud status. Gibson suggests - and I agree - that Australia’s booming ‘new media’ landscape could mean the opinion gender split might not be as man-heavy as the nation’s broadsheets suggest. “The recent profusion of blogs [and] opinion sites such as The Punch, The Drum, and The Conversation, and women's websites - Daily Life, The Hoopla, Women’s Agenda - go pretty close to addressing the balance in terms of total number of pieces published by each gender,” he says.

With that in mind, I contacted Tory Maguire, News Ltd’s national opinion editor and The Punch editor, to see if her approach to the oped gender balance differed in an online context.

“I think findings such as the WMC survey on election coverage are disgraceful, and are evidence of entrenched discrimination in the media outlets they examined,” Maguire says. “My approach to The Punch is to judge on merit and newsiness. Some days the site is very male heavy, some days very female heavy. The split on any given day does not bother me. I am a feminist who does not believe in quotas or affirmative action. I publish probably more women writers than any other site that is not specifically for women.”

While she hasn’t tallied actual figures, Maguire reckons the gender split of pieces submitted to The Punch is “roughly even”.

“Historically, in mainstream media, I would say yes, male voices have been dominant in the opinion sections,” she says. “But the very cool thing about the internet is that women from all sectors have suddenly got a voice. So while you might find newspapers still skewed towards male columnists, you don’t have too look hard [online] to find fantastic writing by so many great women.”

The presence of women’s voices online - not to mention a far richer ethnic and socio-economic diversity - is certainly encouraging. While, as the Guardian study notes, people still place a lot of stock in printed opinion writing, it’s not out of the question to see this as a generational issue. If newspapers are the hangover from/throwback to an era when journalism was a man’s job, perhaps print’s continued slide into the mire will bring about a burgeoning gender balance, and a new era where “opinion writing” doesn’t immediately bring to mind that old dude in a tie.