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Why Women Are Reluctant To Take On the Mantle of ‘Expert’

When I sat on my first panel of professionals before an audience, I received some useful advice. “The audience thinks you’re an expert,” a dear friend told me. “So, just accept that mantle and be one.” The audience turned out to be tiny, but I ran with the advice and pontificated to the sleepy assemblage about journalism and civic engagement, my favorite subjects. Indeed, they took me for the expert I was billed as (even presenting a commemorative mug from the oh-so-glamorous local chapter of the American Society for Public Administration).

An expert is exactly what many women deny they are, according to the OpEd Project, a nonprofit in New York City dedicated to increasing the number of opinion pieces written by women on the nation’s newspapers’ op-ed pages (the name comes from “opposite the editorial” page; it’s a space that includes opinions “opposite” the newspaper’s official ones as expressed in editorials). The group’s latest survey of six top news sources showed only about one in five op-eds were by women. Only one in five! If women identified and embraced their expertise — whether gained through professional experience, graduate school, time spent doing hobbies or raising children or other personal experience and observation — perhaps they would write and submit more op-eds to newspapers. But that’s just one reason for the relative silence; women also may be “keeping their ink dry” because op-ed pages matter, frankly, to just a sliver of the population, or seem boring, or women are gravitating to the more accessible social and online media (like this blog).

This has been on my mind because I had the pleasure and privilege of heading the Forward’s opinion pages for 10 weeks this fall while the editor was on leave. So, it was my job to read and evaluate all the submissions of opinion pieces and letters to the editor. A great variety came in, ranging from the instantly delete-able to the moderately worthwhile to the truly inspired. Having had plenty of experience on the other side of blind submissions, myself — the confidence it takes to submit something you’ve written, the nervous hoping for a response — I took seriously the responsibility to evaluate and respond to each thoughtful submission. It didn’t take long to notice that the vast majority were from men: of the coherent ones I deemed worth another look, about seven times as many op-ed articles were by men than women, while men sent four times as many letters to the editor.

I was annoyed, first, by the disparity in letters, because Letters to the Editor is meant to be the most democratic and open forum. Why didn’t women email more often with their reasoned responses to the Forward articles they’d read? With op-eds, my second annoyance was that I kept receiving unappealing pitches and pieces regularly from the same male writers. Perversely, I envied their confidence and persistence — they kept on writing, and emailing me the fruits of their labors, even though they weren’t great writers! If only women had the same misplaced confidence! (Think of the wars they could start!)

But seriously. How about some merited confidence? Women’s unique ideas are needed in the world. Through the OpEd Project’s seminars and coaching, many women have submitted op-eds and been published — and some have seen the further effects of their writing, whether it’s receiving a grant based on that op-ed, or being invited on television shows to amplify their positions, or seeing an instant community pop up around a newly articulated perspective (as one “pro-life feminist” reported). If our speaking out has an impact, then our silence does, too.

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