Why the letters page is still a male stronghold

Every day last week, as Britain lay in the icy grip of winter, a man sent a letter to the Observer reporting on the weather in greetings card verse. Ignoring the fact that the paper rarely, if ever, publishes amateur poetry, he felt compelled to send us his daily reflections on the snowy scene outside his window. It reminded me that another reader had written earlier asking if men write better letters, as we seem to publish so many from them. On the evidence of our whimsical weatherman the answer is an emphatic “no”, but this question deserves closer examination.

“Some months ago,” wrote Sarah King, “I noticed that the majority of readers’ letters were from men. Since then I’ve checked most weeks and found this to be the case. Only rarely has it come close to 50/50 and only then if you count as female writers with neutral names (Sam, Chris) or just giving initials. I don’t suspect a sexist conspiracy at the Observer but I am interested to know how this happens. Are letters from men more interesting and relevant and therefore more likely to be selected? Are male readers more likely than women to write to the paper? Or is the Observer readership disproportionately male?”

Well, men certainly write many more letters to the paper than women, so they probably stand a better chance of getting in the paper, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better.

“We wish that women would write more,” said our letters editor. “Their letters are often much wittier than those from men, who often seem unable to avoid descending into pomposity.”

Sarah King explains why that wish may be a vain one. “I’m in my 40s and fairly engaged. I read a serious newspaper and I have opinions. But it has never occurred to me to write to a letters page, and I’m now wondering why. All I can point to is a vague feeling that someone else will say it better and a lack of desire to stand up in such a public forum.”

Men don’t seem to share that reluctance to be noticed. I note that all our serial letter writers, those who write every week and sometimes every day (you know who you are), are exclusively male.

A survey of letters published in the Observer during 2009 shows 387 were from men and 166 from women (the numbers exclude 22 neutral signatories and 20 multi-signature campaign letters). The figures go nowhere near reflecting the UK population which currently stands at 51% women and 49% men, but then neither does the readership of the paper, which is 54% male and 46% female.

So, more men than women read the paper and more men than women write to it. As most letters are written in response to pieces in the paper, does this say something about its content appealing more to men than women? We’ll only know if many more women write to tell us.

This column was originally published in The Observer on January 17, 2010.

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