October 24, 2006
Women in Journalism
I certainly suggest folks read my friend Dana Goldstein's article on why Gail Collins, the retiring editor of The New York Times op-ed page, didn't do more for women in punditry. Dana takes the moment to meditate on the sorry state of women in political journalism. As she knows all too well from hanging out with the DC punditry set, to suggest our profession lacks gender equity is to wonder about vegetarian entrees at a steakhouse. Dana's argument is, in effect, to push the spotlight away from magazine staffs and towards elections:
Journalism is essentially an observational profession, and it makes sense that many women writers feel detached from a political world that not only showcases very few women, but also relegates “women’s issues” (these days, anything domestic in both senses of the word, whether public education, health care, issues of work-life balance, or student debt) to second-class status.
Indeed, we remind ourselves far too infrequently that the number of women in positions of national power remains miniscule, and that this affects what issues we debate when we write about “politics.” Women comprise just 15.1 percent of Congress and 22.8 percent of state legislatures. Of the 100 largest American cities, only 12 have female mayors. Just four of President Bush’s 15 cabinet members are women. There are only 8 female governors. Only one woman of color has ever served in the U.S. Senate.
That last graph is a grotesque reminder of how unequal our society is and remains. I will say, however, that Dana is playing fast-and-loose with the definition of "women's issues." Health care, education and student-debt are just about never grouped into that category. That's why I've always found the descriptor so chafing: The very term "women's issues" suggests that other issue areas don't affect women -- a self-evidently absurd and indefensible position. Women's issues aren't women's issues, they're just issues men have decided not to care about, or rigged the game so they don't have to care about. Abortion, work-life balance, and child care are good examples. Health care, student debt, and education are not, and the proof comes in their perennial presidential relevance: Bush ran on No Child Left Behind, Clinton on health care.
As for whether the lack of women in elected office deters women from entering punditry, I fall with the explanations of Amy Sullivan, Maureen Down, Schoolgirls. The answer comes not in campaigns, but classrooms, and even nursery rooms -- the whole culture of socialization that breeds boys to spout out their opinions and girls to demurely tuck their own away. Sexism accounts for a certain amount of the disparity in both progressive punditry and electoral politics (more in the latter than the former, I'd argue), but having looked at The Prospect's applicant pools, I know the number of female applicants is routinely far, far lower than male applicants. It's not all sexism. There are problems far before our editors get in a room and look over resumes.
One last, more personal anecdote: The people in this town, and particularly in this profession, are argumentative outliers. They are more brash, and loud, and opinionated then just about anyone you've ever met. Having always been the loudest debater in the room, I was stunned to get here and be easily talked over. This profession attracts -- and rewards -- a very anomalistic personality type, one who thinks that, at 22, there's no reason they shouldn't critique politicians and argue with learned and famed elders (my understanding is that the gender gap is much smaller is reported news). So if most guys are raised to have X amount of confidence in their opinions, and women are raised to have X-2, that's going to create a huge disparity.
But confidence is taught. When my girlfriend and I met, she wasn't used to folks throwing down the argumentative gauntlet for any disagreement, and taking delight in the resulting heated debate. Now she'll routinely kick my ass. Which is why, in the end, I come down with Ann Friedman: For all the concerned chatter, the only way to change this is to change it, and create byline quotas in the profession. The excuses are too manifold -- and too convincing -- for the problem to be solved, and for editors to reach outside their comfort zone, without a concrete commitment. When they do, they'll find that what hasn't been taught, can be. Complaining about socialization may be correct, but it isn't particularly helpful.
October 24, 2006 | Permalink
It strikes me that some of this is overthinking the topic - perhaps Gail Collins just wanted what many folks in their 40s and 50s now have the luxury to do - a chance to step back, rearrange their priorities, and go about doing what they love ina different way. I always thought, from the moment she accepted the Editorial Page Editor position that it was a waste to lose Collins from the Op-Ed page: she's an exceptional writer... better, for one thing, than Maureen Dowd, and probably even Anna Quindlen. Her return, even one that's a ways down the road, is welcome.
So I think Dana Goldstein is wrong to lay at her feet, or even at the NYT's feet, all that is wrong with women in punditry or in politics. This is one woman's decision. It simply can't stand in for The Condition of All Women.
Finally, Ezra, I get your point, but I think it's a little silly. I argue politics with a bunch of smart, feisty women who certainly keep me on my toes and teach me a lot about how I think about politics - more, most often, than the men I read, correspond, or argue with in person. Just because they (i.e. women) have not constructed their political lives in the ways that many men have, does not mean they don't follow politics, argue about it, or speak forcefully. (I'd also point out that debate does not have to be the shouting match you describe.) I think this is where the "men and women are different" argument, so often used as yet another way to blame women for what they aren't, ought to go the other way: perhaps it's men who need to look harder at how they argue, how they talk to women, and more to the point, how they listen. It's all there, if you're paying attention.
Posted by: weboy | Oct 24, 2006 5:22:47 PM
Actually, Ezra, the one year's data that I'm familiar with shows that the Prospect's writing fellow applicant pool was 40 percent female. Meanwhile, exactly zero percent of the people promoted up the masthead from writing fellow to actual employee over the past eight years have been female. If you've got other data you're working with, let's hear it.
Posted by: Garance Franke-Ruta | Oct 24, 2006 5:32:27 PM
Some further questions:
If women aren't into constructing arguments, as you suggest, why are so many of the editors at editorial pages and opinion magazines -- where their job is to construct, impose, and polish arguments -- female?
If women are still socialized to be afraid of argumentation, how is it that 49 percent of currently enrolled law students are female?
Posted by: Garance Franke-Ruta | Oct 24, 2006 5:46:51 PM
Hey Garance, where have you been? I miss mixing up with you over at Tapped.
And speaking of Tapped, I wrote a scintillating response to this very post in which I argue that the lack of female pundits is due in part to the lack of top female political aides. Once we get more female Carvilles, Gersons, and McCurrys, there'll be more female pundits. Or so I claim.
Posted by: david mizner | Oct 24, 2006 6:04:25 PM
Please please please don't say "this town" when you're talking about Washington. Leave that to the kewl kids, and leave us out of it.
Posted by: JR | Oct 24, 2006 6:13:24 PM
I'm working with the data our editors tell me. In any case, your second post is a fairly absurd misrepresentation of my argument: I suggest that most women may not be socialized so as to be unbelievably arrogant in their opinions (as I, or Matt, or you are).
That's the common thread in what most every female journalist and politico in DC has complained to me. It's not your problem, certainly, but it is for Kate, and Dana, and Amy, and a fair number of others I know. I assume they're not lying to me, so I take the concern seriously. And the structural factors birthing the "confidence gap" are well documented in Schoolgirls, the book I link to. I'd like to hear your issues with it, and I'm certainly looking forward to your eventual Shorenstein report on the subject, but this isn't out-of-left-field stuff. And it's certainly stuff I'd like to not have to believe.
But I'm really interested to know if you're as dismissive of this as you seem. Of the female writing fellows in the past few years, Noy is on contract with us, but tends to focus on film. Ayelish, so far as I understand it, didn't do a whole lot of writing, and did very little blogging. You complain that some of the female voices in the editorial meetings seem relatively uninterested in mixing it up. That would seem to fit. And you can look in Dana's article for Gail Collin complaining her op-ed submissions skew wildly male. And you well know the extreme intellectual arrogance that typifies much of the dc punditry set. So does this really seem so alien a hypothesis? It is, after all, the one both Amy Sullivan and Maureen Dowd advance.
Posted by: Ezra | Oct 24, 2006 6:13:52 PM
Occam's Razor: Testosterone.
Posted by: Steve Sailer | Oct 24, 2006 8:26:21 PM
I'm not sure what explanation GFR is proposing, but I think the broadest reading of Ezra's explanation is wrong. People can reach sufficient confidence pretty quickly--see, e.g., Ezra's girlfriend--so I'm not sure it's necessary to trace it back to nursery school. (I haven't read the book, so maybe I'm misreading what Ezra is saying.)
Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Oct 24, 2006 9:10:06 PM
It's not the confidence gap, it's the deference gap. People don't take as much shit from women as they do from men. I've noticed this as someone who will never back down from an argument. Guys who lay into each other all the time suddenly get pissy when they're challenged by a girl. Maybe I'm just exceptionally annoying, but I don't get the impression that my social skills are that much worse than the average journalist or politician on Washington or NYC.
An opinion writer's job is to tell people what to think, and a certain segment of the population has a problem with taking direction from women.
Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Oct 24, 2006 9:24:17 PM
People don't take as much shit from women as they do from men.
Unless they're married to one. I'm sure there's some truth in Ezra's theory and Lindsay's too. In a way they reinforce each other. And the testosterone theory also applies, very likely.
Tim, keep in mind that Ezra's girlfriend learned to be assertive in argument under very unusual circumstances, i.e. being in a relationship with Ezra. Being a colleague with Ezra would probably not have had the same effect, at least not to the same degree.
Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 24, 2006 9:43:16 PM
Guys who lay into each other all the time suddenly get pissy when they're challenged by a girl.
For some reason, I'm not understanding that. Do you mean they're unwilling to lay into a woman when they would with a man? (I don't think that's what you mean--"and a certain segment of the population has a problem with taking direction from women"--but I'm not getting the quoted part otherwise.)
Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Oct 24, 2006 9:44:20 PM
Tim, I'm saying that guys are often less comfortable in intellectual sparring matches with women than they are with other guys. You see this way more often in meatspace than you do online, but it's a very real phenomenon in academia and in political/journalistic circles. A lot of socializing in these areas revolves around verbal jousting and sparring.
Not all guys are like this by any means, but a certain percentage of the male population will happily debate another man at a cocktail party or field borderline hostile/sarcastic questions at a lecture--only to get his back up if a woman approaches him in the same way.
Women are probably less likely to be immediately comfortable with this adversarial style of interaction for various reasons.
However, speaking as a woman who really likes a good public argument, I've noticed that I'm not given as much license to be an arrogant SOB as some of my male counterparts. Which, being the arrogant SOB that I am, only encourages me-but I'm probably unusually contentious. I can see how other feisty women might be dissuaded from cultivating their inner pompous jerk because of subtle and not-so-subtle double standards.
Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Oct 24, 2006 9:59:52 PM
Random thought: A lot of men care about "women's issues". A lot of "women's issues" are those issues where a lot of men care deeply about oppressing women and the majority of opposition is coming from women. Because the oppression is the status quo, it seems like only women care because they're the only ones agitating, traditionally. But as the abortion battle shows, if men didn't care about women's issues, they wouldn't be issues. If men completely abandoned the abortion debate, it would be legal without question. A lot of anti-choicers are female, but they're basically nothing without a male-dominated government to push their legislation through.
Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Oct 24, 2006 10:10:01 PM
Also, Lindsay's right. I think in meatspace that I give as good as I get, but others have told me that I'm argumentative....for a woman. But compared to a lot of men, I'm very deferential. And it's because I know from experience that a woman mouthing off and getting aggressive is treated like a pariah. And in fact I predict the reply to this comment will be that I'm far too aggressive. The word "bitchy" will probably be tossed out.
Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Oct 24, 2006 10:14:37 PM
Amanda, you're really getting bitchy here, posting two comments in a row. Seriously, I find this connection between a willingness to argue loudly and punditry tenous at best. Did David Brooks, Tony Blankley, Pat Buchanan, Jonathan Alter, Bill Kristol, Bob Novak and all their pasty male comrades get on TV because of a larger apetite for argument? No, they got on TV the same way all other white men get power, through a structure--a network of connections and privileges--that favors white men. I don't see any reason to think that punditry differs in this respect from business, politics, or law.
Posted by: david mizner | Oct 24, 2006 10:28:44 PM
Tim, I'm saying that guys are often less comfortable in intellectual sparring matches with women than they are with other guys....but a certain percentage of the male population will happily debate another man at a cocktail party or field borderline hostile/sarcastic questions at a lecture--only to get his back up if a woman approaches him in the same way.
OK, I just wanted to be sure I understood you correctly. I'll cop to a bit of that sort of behavior; I am less comfortable, I think, having fierce arguments with women. But I don't think (though, obv., I might be deluding myself) that it's because I am unwilling to take direction from a woman. It's because the rules of the argument change slightly, and I end up pulling back my argument a bit. I think, as a general rule (and I'm sure there have been many, many exceptions), I try to be more polite in arguments with women. It's not out of chivalry, but because there are a whole host of things that I might normally say that would reflect badly upon me if said to a woman, or that should reflect badly on me independent of whom I said it to, but which a woman is more likely to note and properly hold against me. I definitely feel more comfortable being nasty to a man. It seems somewhat similar to the way in which people are sometimes more polite in face-to-face arguments with minorities.
 Again, it's possible that I'm just lying to myself. I also might be less comfortable taking direction from a woman because I pull arguments, and so I don't feel I've fully mooted something before we move on. Of course, this too could be a rationalization.
Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Oct 24, 2006 10:32:22 PM
The other thing that hurts women in opinion journalism is the rise of punditry as an independent career. In the old days, you earned the right to offer your opinion by making your bones as a reporter. In "What Liberal Media" Eric Alterman discusses the rise of non-journalists, (actors/political insiders), eclipsing newspeople in the punditocracy.
This shift pulled the rug out from under a lot of women. As Dana Goldstein points out, women are approaching parity with men in straight up reporting. If the old system were in effect, you'd expect to see women gradually but steadily advancing to opinion gigs as their cohort came of age.
These days, the punditocracy is filled with self-appointed media personalities (bloggers being a prime example of this trend).
Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Oct 24, 2006 10:40:47 PM
"The answer comes not in campaigns, but classrooms, and even nursery rooms -- the whole culture of socialization that breeds boys to spout out their opinions and girls to demurely tuck their own away... I know the number of female applicants is routinely far, far lower than male applicants. It's not all sexism."
Because a culture of socialization that "breeds... girls to demurley tuck their [opinions] away" isn't sexist? I hope I'm misunderstanding you or you miswrote. Despite those above who jump to "testosterone" as a rationalization, I think it is pretty clear that it is sexism, although you may be right that it's not all sexism of the editors.
Posted by: Sam L. | Oct 24, 2006 10:45:01 PM
To be clear, I'm not saying that men don't have a larger willingess/desire to argue. (It's not only that society lets us spout bullshit; it's also that men argue and give each other shit as a substitute for directly expressing thoughts and feelings.) What I'm saying is that I don't see a strong link between our willingness/desire to argue and our prominence among the elite punditry. Do we really think that David Gergen or Lawrence O'Donnell have the platform that they have because of a capacity for argument greater than that of, say, any woman who writes for the American Prospect?
Posted by: david mizner | Oct 24, 2006 11:09:03 PM
Lindsay/Amanda - I find your point interesting... my friend Leigh and I were having a similar discussion, about a contentious debate where she was labelled "difficult" and "bitchy" on a topic by some male colleagues. She wanted to run the argument by me to see if it seemed that it was out of line or was she crazy. Sounded like any number of arguments she and I had, and we both give as good as we get. Then again, I may have lost all ability to judge since I generally like bitchy - and arguing with the women around me. :)
Posted by: weboy | Oct 25, 2006 12:17:00 AM
I know nothing about the in's and out's of political punditry, but I do know a lot about getting into arguments with people at parties. I do notice women tend to shy away from an argument but when I find a woman willing to go toe to toe with me I don't think of her as a bitch, I look at her as an equal, especially if she can best me on a few points.
Amanda and Lindsay, it sounds like you are hanging out with men that don't appreciate a smart woman willing to stand up for what she believes. I respect women who speak up, it is the women who back off and cower to men that I feel bad for.
Posted by: jbou | Oct 25, 2006 12:21:36 AM
Posted by: DRR | Oct 25, 2006 1:59:54 AM
'For all the concerned chatter, the only way to change this is to change it, and create byline quotas in the profession.'
Isn't there something missing in this argument? The lack of female punditry is blamed on the entire method of socialization of both men and women over all of the years of their lifetimes: that's what I think Ezra's argument is.
So we'll solve this by insisting that 50% of punditry must be by women: who, as Ezra points out, have been socialized rather differently, so that punditry is done by those without these qualities?
' This profession attracts -- and rewards -- a very anomalistic personality type, one who thinks that, at 22, there's no reason they shouldn't critique politicians and argue with learned and famed elders'
Wouldn't encouraging those qualities in women be a better idea?
Posted by: Tim Worstall | Oct 25, 2006 6:42:10 AM
It would, and it should be done. But in the meantime, you have to take more effective action, as the gender disparity is just groteaque. Also, it's not clear those intellectual alpha qualities are good for political punditry. Just that they're rewarded in it, or at least prized by the people in it.
Posted by: Ezra | Oct 25, 2006 9:26:51 AM
I am far from qualifed to judge the reason for so little punditry by woman, but I look forward to more of it. On the whole, they tend to come off a lot less obnoxiously, arrogant than men do.
And I will echo SCM Tim's sentiment about "bitchy" women. I have a hard time in relationships with women who aren't assertive. I like to be with someone who isn't afraid to tell me what they want, or dance around whether or not something I say or do bothers them. When I make my partner uncomfortable, I want to know what I need to change to stop it - I like things to be as harmonious as possible.
Posted by: DuWayne | Oct 25, 2006 11:15:12 AM
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