Do we care about men's opinions more than women's?

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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.

11 comments

  • opinion editors may say they strive for gender balance but i have known many women whose pieces have been rejected for publishing and in my view they were better and sometimes more relevant than some of what what actually ended up on those pages (including in the Age and SMH). So it is a subjective process from the editing perspective and perhaps editors have a conditioning in themselves to stick with the known balance. And as for the Drum being one of the new sites that corrects the balance - i would say the opposite. If you search through just recent days and weeks, sometimes the male dominance is overwhelming. I know women who have now given up submitting to the Drum and other outlets (again including Fairfax but Fairfax seems generally more women friendly) because the men are favoured so blatently. It is very disappointing and hard for women to keep pushing against that wall. Women seem to have a much better chance of publishing if they write about 'women's issues'. We will get out of the dark ages eventually but there is still a long way to go.

    Commenter
    exclusion
    Date and time
    September 17, 2012, 8:15AM
    • “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.”

      Wait. What?

      Women's pledges are never rejected in favour of men's, but men's are rejected because there weren't enough women on the page?

      And rejecting articles because of the gender of the author is a step forward for equality?

      People should be judged on the quality and relevance of their opinion articles, not the gender of the writer. Neither gender should be preferenced.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      September 17, 2012, 9:11AM
      • The other implication of this quote is that not enough women are writing articles for consideration. "But still some days I can't find a good woman" tells its own story. Instead of hectoring men about bias or "entrenched discrimination" as one quote in the article suggests, one option might be to encourage more women to submit opinion pieces.

        The article points out that News Limited national opinion editor, Tory Maguire, is a woman, so she isn't part of the "entrenched discrimination". Sushi Das, the Age's opinion editor is a woman, so she is not part of the "entrenched discrimination". So Joel Gibson,a man, was the only one who pleaded guilty to "entrenched discrimination". And his discrimination is in favour of women.

        Hmmmm.

        Commenter
        Nogbad
        Location
        Slaving over the Remington
        Date and time
        September 17, 2012, 10:32AM
      • Ah yes, the tired argument of meritocracy......when a piece of work is being judged - whether that be submissions to a publication or the production of output in a corporate setting, they are being judged from a particular perspective - usually a male one as there are still many more men deciding what is worthy and what is valuable than women.
        When men make a call about what should be printed, they are making this decision from their own perspective - the male perspective - and more times then not, the female perspective just doesn't resonate as much with men - heard of unconscious bias ??
        Can we please stop talking about merit based decisions until there are as many women as men making decisions about what is valuable and worthy of merit.

        Commenter
        Equity
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 17, 2012, 10:58AM
      • Yes, as mentioned in response to another article, this sort of mentality will lead to a very unpleasant future for men seeking employment in the next 50 years. I believe the previous response was in regard to quotas, however, it stands. If ten positions are available, women can apply for all ten, but men for only five. Load up continuing societal expectations of men to be the provider, and I would be pleasantly surprised if we do not see male suicide numbers jump substantially, in the next 10-20 years.

        Commenter
        Tim the Toolman
        Date and time
        September 17, 2012, 11:14AM
      • "Can we please stop talking about merit based decisions until there are as many women as men making decisions about what is valuable and worthy of merit."

        That's a complicated assertion, as one could argue that the publication would need to tailor its views to its readership. If the readership is 90% male, would you still argue for 50% representation? I.e, for a hardcore car enthusiast magazine, would we need 50% women making the contributions and approving contributions? Should we have 50% male representation on a magazine where women make up the majority of readers? How much does the publication bias affect the readership demographics? That is, if you did suddenly have 50% representation on a car enthusiast magazine, would you expect an adjustment in readers over time? If not, is it doing a disservice in having editors who are engaging in a form of bias to a demographic that is simply not interested? If so, how would you convince publications that they have an untapped market that would need to be larger than their current market, of which they might lose a share if their focus were to alter? It's tricky, because it's a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario. Not saying it's not plausible, just that it would do well to have substantial research into it before you'd be able to get a business to comfortably make the jump.

        Commenter
        Tim the Toolman
        Date and time
        September 17, 2012, 11:58AM
    • "three quarters of election coverage is written by men. . . . accuse WMC of selectiveness or only surveying niche publications to influence the end result"

      You can still accuse them of selectiveness because they are only looking at political pieces. It would be as valid and useful as only looking at the Daily Life and Lifestyle sections of the SMH to see if there was some gender bias.

      Broader studies are needed. Even the one of The Age needs to be broadened to all pieces in the newspaper that involved opeds. This would mean including Daily Life, Lifestyle, Domain, Business and Executive Style.

      However, it wouldn't prove anything other than correlation. Correlation is not causation. You have to look for underlying reasons. Is there favourtism of one gender in selection? Does one gender prefer one style over another eg oped vs basic reporting?

      From the statements of the managing editors, it would appear that there is no favouritism. Selection is more on merit. Merit includes quality of the piece and relevance at the time.

      Ultimately, it appears to be a pointless study.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      September 17, 2012, 9:13AM
      • huge leaps in logic here that seem to need to be questioned (instead of plainly stated unchallenged)
        eg;

        "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."

        so, in order to disect an issue you need to be a member of the group in question - i though seinfeld delt with this 10+ years ago ("anti-dentite")

        "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.”

        really? - thats a broad statement. Do people watch fox news (or any other biased publication) if they disagree with the point of view?

        other:

        what are the proportion of male/female journalists at uni journalism courses? Are these expectations adjusted for the fact that some women choose to drop out of the labour force during their 30's?

        Commenter
        2
        Date and time
        September 17, 2012, 10:34AM
        • Bingo.

          Attitudes like this just reinforce the notion that there are women's opinions and men's opinions, and men are not welcome to comment on women's issues. Without moving away from that, I doubt we'll get far.

          Commenter
          Stuart
          Date and time
          September 17, 2012, 1:55PM
      • I would say you are definitely right about the split.
        I hope you and others associated with this forum/newspaper will fight employment of men to such positions until this inequlaity is at least ironed out here.
        When that is done, lets get more of you woman writing about political issues etc and less about gender issues. When there is no further need for these sorts of articles then equality hopefully has been reached!

        Commenter
        david
        Date and time
        September 17, 2012, 2:15PM

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