Sexism in Journalism Really Lives on the Opinion Page

Jill Abramson's Firing Prompts Look at Gender Breakdown

Firing Offense: Jill Abramson, the now former executive editor of The New York Times.
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Firing Offense: Jill Abramson, the now former executive editor of The New York Times.

By Elissa Strauss

Published May 19, 2014.
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With all the worries about the founded or unfounded role of sexism in Jill Abramson’s firing from The New York Times, it’s worth remembering the very well documented way that gender discrimination plays out on the opinion pages of major publications.

Recently both the Women’s Media Center and VIDA: Women in Literary Arts released their findings of studies on the gender differentlal. Both reveal that our media landscape is still heavily, heavily, dominated by male voices. Really, statistically speaking the fact that you are reading a woman right now is unlikely.

The Women’s Media Center reports that op-ed writers remain predominantly white and male, with an average age of 60 years. Of the 143 columnists at the nation’s three most-vaunted (as they put it) newspapers and the four largest syndicates of opinion columnists, only 38 are women. They also found that men are three times as likely to be quoted on page 1 stories in the New York Times, and men account for two-thirds of newsroom staffers at our nation’s daily newspapers.

Things don’t look much rosier at magazines, according to VIDA.Thought-leaders like Harpers, the Nation, the New Yorker and the Atlantic all featured a higher number of men than women last year. Harpers (which has a female editor, for whatever that’s worth) published 54 women and 154 men, the New Yorker, 253 women and 555 men, the Nation (also has a female editor), 179 women and 478 men, and the Atlantic, 72 women and 150 men.

There is one piece of good news in all these reports, the 3rd one from WMC and the 5th from VIDA. Ladies and gentlemen, they have located a cure for the widespread gender disparity: trying. It’s simple, effective and doesn’t cost your publisher a thing!

Yes! A publication only need to actually try to include more women’s voices in their pages and, ta-dah, they will publish more women. This means soliciting more female voices, giving pitches submitted by women more consideration, broadening the scope of topics they consider highbrow enough for your pages and, lastly, feeling a deep prick of shame when, month after month, female bylines are crowded by male ones.

This sounds obvious, even intuitive, right? And yet, it remains ignored by some of the smartest and savviest editors around. Men and women.

Three years ago I spoke to top editors about the dearth of female bylines at their publications, including New Yorker editor David Remnick and New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers. Both were contrite, to a degree.

Remnick told me: “It’s certainly been a concern for a long time among the editors here, but we’ve got to do better — it’s as simple and as stark as that.” And Silvers told me “We certainly hope to publish more.” But the only thing they have done since then is cast light on the deep chasm that exists between wanting to do something and actually doing it.

Tin House editor Rop Spillman told VIDA that their numbers back in 2010 were a “kick in the pants,” and has since come to realize that you have seek balance in a systemic way. The result? Well this year they actually featured more women than men. Similar changes occurred this past year at the Paris Review and the New York Times Book Review, now helmed by a woman, both of whom have brought balance, if not yet total parity, to their pages – through trying.

The Forward’s own Gal Beckerman also took that big step from wanting to trying in his opinion section and now women’s voices appear just as often as men’s. In addition to three regular female op-ed writers, including myself, the Forward’s editor Jane Eisner, and the latest addition, Forward Thinking editor Sigal Samuel, the Forward’s op-ed section consistently offers a range of women’s voices far above the national average of 20% of op-eds. It’s clear what effort can do.

My original instinct was to close this op-ed with a defense of why women’s voices matter. But then every line I started to write made me cringe. Why should I have to explain something that should be as self-evident as the importance of drinking water or being nice to children and the elderly? It is 2014. I just can’t. As Cate Blanchett said in her recent Oscar acceptance speech about the dearth of female-centered films, “The world is round, people.”

Amen. For too long now we’ve taken progress to be inevitable, but it’s not. Change can happen, but we have to try.

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