Where are women’s opinions?

Why do the voices of women account for — at best — a fifth of the opinions expressed on the op-ed pages of this and other major Canadian daily newspapers?

The easy, knee-jerk feminist answer here would be to assume that since men (still) largely control the media, it naturally follows that female perspectives take a sorry second place to male viewpoints.

It is not that simple.

The reality is that women are far less likely than men to step up to voice their views in public forums such as the op-ed pages and letters to the editor. I don’t know if anyone has yet measured whether this holds true in online comment sections, but I’d venture a guess that many more men than women are opining online as well.

The result is a significant gender gap in public discourse with the voices of women under-represented in debate and discussion on important issues that affect our lives.

Though women constitute 52 per cent of the population, 50 per cent of the paid workforce and 61 per cent of university graduates, women’s perspectives account for less than 20 per cent of the columns and guest commentaries in Canada’s largest daily newspapers.

Those figures come from a new Canadian organization called Informed Opinions. Founded by Shari Graydon, longtime president of the media literacy group Media Action. Informed Opinions aims to narrow that gender gap by encouraging women to speak up and share their expertise in powerful public forums such as the op-ed pages.

This worthy initiative is similar to one called The Op-Ed Project launched in the U.S. in 2007 “to expand the range of voices we hear from in the world.”

“I don’t think there is any concerted effort to keep women off of the op-ed pages but the reality is that women are not writing and they are not submitting,” Graydon told me during a recent visit to the Star. “Too many women, even when asked to provide their perspective, are still too apt to say, ‘I’m really not the best person on this.’ ”

To counter that reluctance, Informed Opinions, funded in part by a grant from Status of Women Canada, seeks to empower women with the confidence to speak out. It provides workshops for women who are experts in their fields on how to write opinion pieces and pitch their ideas to editors. Graydon is also working to set up a database of female public policy experts who will make their voices accessible to Canadian media.

Last spring, Informed Opinions monitored the commentary pages of six daily newspapers, including the Star, over a two-week period. Its conclusion: “Women’s perspectives are missing in action in some of the highest profile media vehicles likely to influence Canadians’ opinions on key public policy issues.”

The study found that only 16 per cent of the op-eds published in the six papers were written by women. Female columnists represented 15 per cent of the regular contributors in English-language dailies and 23 per cent in French language papers.

In the sample weeks studied, the Star’s female Opinion columnists made up “an impressive” 44 per cent of all op-ed columnists, “outshining all other English dailies monitored by “a significant margin.” That’s largely because columnist Carol Goar writes three times weekly for the Star’s op-ed page and Heather Mallick appears twice weekly on the page.

But the study also found that during that same two-week period not one of the Star’s op-ed articles was written by a woman.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to the Star’s editorial page editor, Andrew Phillips, who deals daily with the reality that substantially more men than women submit op-ed articles. “It’s a supply issue, not a demand issue,” he said. “Every man has an opinion and doesn’t hesitate to voice it.”

It’s troubling that not enough smart women seem to have the confidence to say “this is my opinion and what I know is worth listening to.” Why this is so is the stuff of sociology textbooks.

Within the media, it would be easy to assume editors need only make stronger efforts to seek out more women to write more op-eds. Again, the reality isn’t so simple.

At another newspaper where I regularly chased and assigned writers to op-eds, too often the women I sought out turned down the opportunity to express their point of view on newsworthy issues.

They gave me many reasons. While overall I did find women less certain than men that what they know is worth sharing, for some, the work/life balance is so precarious that they simply could not add writing an op-ed to their to-do list.

The Informed Opinions initiative provides hope for change. On Wednesday, the Star’s op-ed page was filled entirely by the words of women — columns by Goar and Mallick and an op-ed essay by Queen’s University law professor Hilary Young making a compelling case that the Ontario Legislature should amend the law to make clear that patients have no right to demand life-sustaining treatment.

Young’s voice was clear in calling for action on a controversial public policy issue.

And as it happens, Young is a graduate of Informed Opinions’ first-ever workshop held to encourage more women to speak out.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on Sept. 23, 2011.

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