When it comes to “hard” news issues like foreign policy and national security, male voices dominate. It’s not because there aren’t women with views and opinions though — it’s because we read more competence and authority into the male voice, and we socialize women out of feeling that they’re entitled to an opinion. In the Guardian:
That media bylines are disproportionately male is a well-documented fact. Female bylines are particularly absent in legacy media pieces about the economy, international politics, social action and security. Part of that is the narrow and cyclical world of opinion journalism: op-ed writers are more likely to be printed in a prestigious publication if their work has been printed in a prestigious publication before, so the guy who wrote a couple one-offs about the Middle East for an impressive publication five years ago probably has a better shot at publishing an op/ed tomorrow than the woman who has studied the issues and worked in the region for a decade but hasn’t ever published. Men have dominated journalism and the international politics space for a long time; their publishing legacies make it easier for them to be published going forward.
Columns about so-called “hard” political issues like security and foreign affairs also require a commanding editorial voice. Cultural conditioning leads us to perceive women’s words as less authoritative, and women themselves as less competent than men – and our perceptions shift based on a name alone. One Yale study found that science researchers evaluated candidates with female names on their resumes as less competent and less hirable than male-named candidates with identical experience; the male candidates were offered higher salaries and more career mentoring. It wasn’t intentional sexism, and the science faculty always had clearly-articulated gender-neutral reasons for why they preferred the male candidate. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that we likely read a level of competence, intelligence and authority into op-eds with male bylines that female writers are not afforded.
Unlike a comparison of identical resumes, writing is a craft, and its evaluation subjective. There are many hard-and-fast rules of what makes something “good,” but there’s a lot of personal opinion in there too. That can elicit even further unconscious gender bias. Other industries have sought to challenge unintentional sexism by removing gender from the equation. For example, orchestras around the globe began using blind auditions in the 1970s and 80s to screen new members; that method significantly increased the number of female musicians earning orchestral seats. It wasn’t that male musicians were better; it was that their being male led listeners to perceive them as better. Writing isn’t all that different.
We’re also accustomed to seeing men in positions of power. Men account for 479 of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They make up 82% of the US Congress, 86% of executive officers and 84% of corporate board members. Men tend to be promoted on the basis of potential, whereas women earn promotions through accomplishments. To put that another way, women have to prove their abilities, while men are assumed to have them. As men move up the ranks, they’re seen as more likable. For women who enter positions of power, it’s the opposite. We see examples all the time in powerful women who are routinely imaged as nagging or shrewish or insufficiently nice — Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Stephanie Cutter.
Like the scientists who sincerely believed they had valid reasons for choosing the male candidates over the female ones and the members of audition panels who sincerely believed they had valid reasons for selecting male musicians, editors no doubt sincerely believe they’re simply selecting “better” op/eds from male writers. Readers no doubt sincerely believe they take written words at face value and evaluate articles fairly based on content and not bylines.
A sincere belief, though, is not a fact.
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