The Reoccurring Theme of Entitlement

Recently, I’ve attended two different events about women in the media. The first was Her Girl Friday‘s “Throw Like a Girl: Pitching the Hell Out of Your Stories.” The other was the  New America Foundation‘s panel, “Navigating the Pink Ghetto.” Both looked closely at the gender disparity in the media and how women can get their voices out there.

The Gender Gap: By the Numbers

The gender gap in the media is still very disappointing. The Op-Ed Project released results of their survey that showed that women are still under-represented on opinion pages around the country.

As you can see from the graph here, the situation has improved since 2005, but women are still only writing 22% of the op-eds at the New York Times, 19% at the Wall Street Journal and 24% at the LA Times. But the other issue is not just that women aren’t being published on the opinion pages, but that they’re writing about  “pink topics” like gender, food, family and style, significantly more than other important issues. Women are affected by the economy and politics, education and national security, but they’re not writing about it.

Another troubling set of data is the number of bylines by women vs. men in major news magazines. VIDA’s 2011 count of bylines shows just how bad the problem is. With pie charts showing men in red and women in blue, the breakdown is a sea of red. What’s particularly interesting about these numbers is that they looked at the publications as a whole, the articles and then, for magazines that reviewed books, the genders of the authors of reviewed books and the gender of the reviewers. In all cases, men dominated. One issue that has come up in regards to the discrepancy is the submission rates of men and women. But in another blog post, Danielle Pafunda largely discounted submission numbers for the problem. Some of her points:

  •  Some editors seem quite pleased when the ratio of women to men published turns out to reflect the gender stats in their submission pool. Why? In these numbers conversations, we often cite the importance of editorial free reign. We aren’t interested in quotas or outside review boards, and we haven’t gotten on the peer review bandwagon with our academic counterparts, so why would we want editors to bind themselves so tightly to the demographics of their submissions piles? This suggests that an editor is a fairly passive machine, an inbox that receives and selects writing, but doesn’t actively seek out good writing.
  • No one reads gender-blind. Though most editors claim to read for the quality of the work, not the gender, we know that we code the subject of a text feminine or masculine (domestic or important, for instance), and that the language itself can scan gendered. Though most of us will fail to determine the author’s gender from just a paragraph, as VS Naipaul claimed he could, with a bit more text we will often make correct assumptions about whether we’re reading work by a man or a woman.
  • When the group in power puts the onus back on the marginalized group, it always leads to bad feelings. Frankly, it’s rude. Instead of telling less powerful, less privileged others how they can fix the problem that we editors have had the largest hand in creating, let’s ante up. Let’s tell readers and writers what we’re going to do to change the numbers and lead by example. And since we’re all quite embedded in a system that bakes the same stale pies every time, editors, let’s support and hold each other to it.


And lastly, a problem that wasn’t talked about much at either of the events I attended is the gender gap in the 2012 election coverage. The 4th Estate put together this amazing infographic of the number of women quoted in election coverage by major news organizations. It’s almost appalling to look at these numbers and see that even on women’s issues, men are overwhelmingly quoted. Men have a lot to say about abortion (81% of quotes), birth control (75%) and Planned Parenthood (67%) despite the fact that these issues directly affect women.

Why the Discrepancy?

We’re aware of the problem. But the why is much harder to understand. The reoccurring theme at “Throw Like a Girl” and “Navigating the Pink Ghetto” was the sense of entitlement that men feel when it comes to getting their work published. Katherine Lanpher, an award-winning print and broadcast journalist, said that “it’s not a question of gender, it’s a question of who feels entitled to take up space.” Meanwhile, Evan Ratliff, founder of The Atavist, said simply, “male writers have a natural sense of entitlement.” Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate also agreed that men feel more entitled.

To understand the reasons why men have a sense of entitlement would probably require years of research on gender socialization, so perhaps it’s more useful to focus on what we can do about it. Annie Murphy Paul, author of Brilliant and Origins, cautioned against women marginalizing themselves. “Are we ghettoizing ourselves?” Paul asked, suggesting that by calling the issues women write about as “pink” label those topics as less important. Katie Orenstein, founder and CEO of the Op-Ed project also made the point that minority opinions begin to doubt their own competency. Perhaps it’s time to change the way we talk about the topics women write about, because, as Lanpher said, “security is a women’s issue, the economy is a women’s issue.” She also made the point that there is a lot of opportunity for women to write about these topics.

During “Navigating the Pink Ghetto” there was a lot of discussion about the differences between the ways men and women write. The general consensus was that women generally take a more measured and thoughtful approach in their writing. However, Pamela Paul, features editor for the New York Times Book Review, pointed out that the “considered, thoughtful approach in general doesn’t work as well to grab headlines.” She continued to say that women take extra care to cover all their bases, while men are more full of bluster, punchier, leading to a more dramatic read. Bazelon agreed, saying that the problem with being careful and hesitant is that women are not producing at the same rate.

Getting the Work Out There

And that was the problem that Her Girl Friday hosted “Throw Like a Girl” to address. One piece of advice that was repeated throughout the evening was to stop taking rejection personally. “Rejection isn’t a reflection of your value,” said Carolyn Ryan, Metro editor of the New York Times. Ratliff added that a rejection isn’t personal. Lanpher repeated throughout the panel, “No is a bump on the road to yes.”

And there was also a lot of practical advice as well. Pitch stories, not topics. Spell the editor’s name right. Know the publication you’re pitching to. Show that you have an angle. And, Jessica Pressler, contributing editor to New York Magazine, emphasized that confidence should come through in your pitch.

I have to be honest, I definitely fall into the category of women who fret about their pitches. Being an independent producer and writer means a lot of pitching and probably a lot of rejection. It’s so easy to internalize that rejection, but I continually remind myself that it’s the idea that is being rejected, not me. And I know it’s important to keep pitching.

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  1. Lacee Thomas says

    This is such an interesting topic, and it makes so much sense. All too oftern women undersale themselves and don’t communicate their assets and what they bring to the table in the same boastful but tasteful manner that males do…and we as women are largley to blame for that. We have to start speaking about the gender gap topics in a less down played manner in order for these issues to really be looked at by all and not as a side conversation at the table. Great post!

    • Shana Westlake says

      Hi Lacee,

      Thanks for the comment! I definitely think responsibility lies on two ends of the spectrum. Women need to take control of their futures and get their voices out there. And it is hard to think outside of the traditional women’s topics sometimes. We are more inclined to want to write about the things that we care about strongly, but we need to retrain our brains that the economy is something we should care about too. And on the other end, editors need to be more conscious of including a greater diversity of voices. Because we do need that broader range of ideas. That’s how change happens and that’s how innovation happens.


  2. says

    I agree with both of you (Lacee and Shana). Yes, society must change but the only reason it will is because we step up and participate. We don’t have to MAKE it change, it will react to our actions. And yes, Shana, it kills me to see women opt into discussions at networking receptions about baby spit when there’s so much business to be done. Not that there aren’t reasons to talk about baby spit (when your baby is spitting alot, it’s something you really want to talk about!), but i find it gets really tiresome sometimes and in some cases keeps women from doing effective networking. You’re raising the issue of how this reflects on the public stage, Shana, which is equally important.

    Lacee – I just finished a webinar on the subject of women speaking up. I am passionate about this issue! It’s very much my mission to help women get their heads around authentic ways they can speak up without feeling like they’re bragging and really get their voice out there. That’s why I fell all over myself to get Shana’s post up here and why most of my own material tends to revolve around this topic. If you’re interested in watching the webinar you can watch the replay here:

    Thanks so much for the great conversation!

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