OPINION | Why won’t women write?


Soon, the kids will be back in school. PTA and site council meetings will convene and the op-ed pages in the local media will be filled with debate about the results of last spring’s round of standardized testing, the curriculum and school funding. 

During the school year, these topics and many more will be put on the table. However, not everyone who should be seated there will be present for discussion. While there are many women on the front lines of education, in the classroom and on school fundraising committees, they are noticeably absent from the far-reaching public forum of the op-ed pages. It is reported that between 80 and 90 percent of the op-ed pieces we read in the mainstream media are written by men.

That’s according to the OpEd Project, an organization that encourages women to lend their voices to key opinion forums, whether it’s in the New York Times, the Pioneer Press or at the PTA meeting.

The New-York based project’s founder Catherine Orenstein became interested in the issue after hearing the president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, suggest during a meeting in 2005, that there was a genetic basis for the fact that fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Orenstein wondered whether women really lacked success or if they simply lacked recognition for their success.

As a writer, she took a close look at the op-ed pages, where “thought leaders” and respected experts influence perceptions. She discovered that women are not being actively prevented from getting published. Women are simply far less likely than men to write and submit. So Orenstein started the OpEd Project in 2008, with seed money from the social entrepreneurship fund, Echoing Green. Her goal was to get women to step forward, speak up, contribute and be recognized.

The obvious solution, according to Orenstein, is to storm the ramparts of power with sheer numbers. The goal is to get thousands more women writing and submitting op-ed pieces, until a tipping point is reached, where women write one-third of the op-eds in American publications.

I recently attended an OpEd Project seminar, co-sponsored by the Community Media Workshop in downtown Chicago. Upon arriving, I was met at the door by Katherine, the seminar instructor. She was a friendly woman with bright blonde hair cut in a fashionable bob. I also noted that she had a hauntingly familiar, distinctively bawdy laugh.

It took me a moment after hearing her full name to realize that I would be spending the day with Katherine Lanpher, a former Twin Cities journalist who I had listened to regularly on Minnesota Public Radio when she hosted the Midmorning program several years ago.

Lanpher opened by telling us to put our pens down because we wouldn’t be spending the day doing writing exercises. The seminar was about more than simply learning to write op-eds. The OpEd Project experience was intended to help us find our voices. She said, “What do we mean by an opinion editorial? It’s a metaphor for making your argument in a public place, whether it’s a newspaper, a blog or the PTA meeting. We want you to live out loud.”

One of the first exercises we did was to introduce ourselves in terms of our area of expertise. There were 15 of us, all women, all ages, visibly diverse but utterly the same when it came to our performance on this exercise. We confessed awkwardly, almost reluctantly, to remarkable accomplishments. The room was filled with professors, authors, journalists, activists and consultants, most of us with Masters and Doctorate degrees.

Lanpher gestured broadly and explained that this was the first hurdle to overcome. Women don’t speak up enough and are reluctant to position themselves as credible experts, a key to getting opinion pieces published.

Women make up half the population, Lanpher pointed out, but its not reflected in the forums of public debate. She said, “Imagine how much the world conversation would improve if women spoke up.”

As the day continued, Lanpher worked one-on-one with us to tailor our introductions to be short, tight and specific. She wouldn’t stand for prevarication: Masu, an expert in International Women’s Rights was encouraged to mention that she has a master’s degree from Harvard; Deb, a farm activist, to mention that she was a consultant on “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution;” and Chinwe, an investment analyst, to be sure to mention her involvement with Pritzker Realty Group and its $3 billion worth of real estate assets.

We were encouraged to transfer our sense of self into our sense of social responsibility. She challenged us to be confident about our ideas and experiences, saying, “Acting with confidence is not selfish, it allows you to participate and do things for others.”

She asked, “If you had the cure for cancer, would you share it with a room full of cancer patients? Or would you be reluctant to speak up, saying the things I heard you say today?

“I’m too young.”

“It’s hard to vocalize.”

“My expertise has not been conferred…”

There was time spent studying the structure of a good op-ed piece. We read examples developed by former participants that got published. We created sample topics and debated them with each other. We talked about writing ledes, hooks, gathering evidence and addressing the opposing viewpoint with empathy and respect.

We also learned about the OpEd Project’s Mentor-Editor Program, just added last year. Seminar participants are encouraged to stay in touch with the project for up to a year. Once a writer has generated a piece for submission, she will be matched with one of the project’s mentor editors to help her shape it for publication. Among the ranks of the mentor editors are former members of the New York Times editorial board, contributors to The New Yorker and a number of nationally syndicated columnists.

As a new school year begins, so too does a new year of problem solving and punditry. Let’s get more women to the table; let’s get their op-eds published and their voices heard. Among Lanpher’s parting remarks were the words, “Why aren’t there more women in leadership? Sometimes we don’t show up.”

Lisa Steinmann is an expert in PTAs and parenting. She’s been attending meetings in school libraries, often sitting in very small chairs, for over 20 years. She is also an award-winning community journalist and blogger at wordcanoe.com.