Turning Up the Volume on Women’s Voices

April 8, 2011 0 Comments

Originally published in Color Magazine, March 2011

Where are the women? In business, technology and media, among other fields, this is the big question we seem to be asking ourselves again and again as a society. It’s the headline of more than a few articles and columns. Despite an appreciation for women’s unique skills and strengths (let alone our right to sit at the decision-making table) women aren’t showing up in positions of power as much as we’d hope. Take politics: with women holding 17 of 100 seats in the Senate and 72 of 435 seats in the House, women make up just 16.6 percent of the 112th U.S. Congress. In 2011, how can this be true?

At least in the case of media, Katie Orenstein, founder of The Op-Ed Project, considers the relative lack of women’s voices in the public discourse an “imminently solvable problem.” The Op-Ed Project, a national initiative aimed at expanding the range of voices we hear from, launched in 2008 with seed funding from Echoing Green with the focused goal of getting more women published in the op-ed pages of top newspapers, online sites and other key forums of public debate. By running seminars teaching women how to write and pitch op-ed pieces as one of its main programs, The Op-Ed Project offers a strategic approach to changing the nature and scope of the world’s conversation.

A writer herself, Orenstein learned early in her career that a major part of the problem is the fact that women don’t submit op-eds with anywhere near the frequency that men do. “The debate about why there are so few women voices often focuses on blame or handwringing,” she said. “Is it sexism, biology, socialization? If you actually look at the major media outlets and the gatekeepers who run those outlets, most of them are really concerned with having diverse voices and more women. But [not enough] women submit pieces.”

In a recent interview with 85 Broads (a global network for women), Orenstein recalls that her editors at The New York Times told her that 3 out of 4 outside-submitted op-ed pieces were from men as of just a few years ago; at The Washington Post, about 9 out of 10 op-eds were submitted by men. “Very early on, our notion was that we could help,” Orenstein said.

Today, The Op-Ed Project works with universities, nonprofits, corporations, women’s organizations and community leaders and offers public workshops in several major cities. As of early 2010, more than 3,000 women have attended writing seminars. In addition, the organization connects participants and top alums with “mentor-editors,” a group of approximately 80 high-profile women and men in media who volunteer to mentor one writer per month, statistically doubling these writers’ odds of getting published. They’ve also formed mutually beneficial partnerships with The Christian Science Monitor and PBS’s weekly newsmagazine Need To Know; both venues publish pieces by alums with a note “via The Op-Ed Project.” In so doing, The Op-Ed Project has created something of a feeder system for op-ed, radio, television and other media, a “de facto diverse wire service,” as Orenstein describes it, giving women the skills, information, and connections they need to get their voices out there and heard.

So who are some of these writers? Brooklyn-based Courtney E. Martin, an alum, advisor and mentor-editor with The Op-Ed Project is a widely published freelance journalist, editor at Feministing.com and author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection Is Harming Young Women. Zeba Khan, an alum and mentor-editor in training to lead Op-Ed Project seminars, is a social media consultant at Harvard University’s Law Lab at The Berkman Center for Internet and Society and writes columns for The Huffington Post, among other publications. With op-eds on work/life balance and social networks respectively, both Martin and Khan ended up being finalists in The Washington Post’s Next Great American Pundit contest in 2009. Of 4,800 entrants, both made it to the final four.

Zeba Khan’s story with writing may sound familiar to many women. “I’m an opinionated person. But I never thought to write publicly or had the confidence to do so.” She described the seminar she attended in early 2009 as transformative, an experience that strengthened her desire to see a greater diversity of voices in print. For her first column, “Muslim Americans Missing From the Political Fray,” she said she aimed simply to write from what she knew, sharing her thoughts on faith and civic engagement.

The Op-Ed Project held a training seminar in Boston in February. Poet and Op-Ed Project newcomer, Yarimee Guiterrez said, most valuable was how the seminar affirmed everyone’s unique voices. “There’s nothing magical about getting published,” she said,”It’s really a matter of believing your ideas have value enough to just write and submit.” Guiterrez left the seminar aware of the fact that we can’t advance our ideas without a certain amount of power. “Power includes things that sometimes make us uncomfortable: a sense of personal gain, exposure, money.”

Katie Orenstein recalls that The Op-Ed Project was originally founded with practical, concrete, and measurable results in mind. This is still true for the organization, but now The Op-Ed Project’s aim is more vocally far-reaching: “We want to advance the idea that our world will be much smarter, richer, and more interesting if we can hear the best ideas from all different kinds of people, especially more women.”


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