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Katie Orenstein, Founder of The OpEd Project, Says One of the Best Places to Invest is in Women's Brainpower

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Do men and women think differently? Are our stories and perspectives different? Does this really matter? You betcha.

With banks and Wall Street failing us, our health care system abandoning us, military spending rising daily, and education budgets being ferociously cut, there is no doubt that we have some work to do. We are a smart nation. We are good people. We want to live happy, healthy lives. So why are we in this predicament today?

I spoke recently with Katie Orenstein, Founder of The OpEd Project, about this. She says one of the best places to invest is in women's brainpower.

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Katie Orenstein, founder of The OpEd Project, says we live in a world where public conversation and public knowledge are created in a tunnel. "This a dangerous way to live and experience the world." Photo courtesy of Echoing Green.

Tabby Biddle: The OpEd Project is helping expand the range of voices we hear in the world, with a particular focus on increasing the number of women 's voices. How would you describe the current landscape?

Katie Orenstein: If you think about who are the voices and what are the ideas that we hear in the world, it's a very, very narrow selection of society. It's mostly privileged, mostly Western, mostly white, and mostly male. It's almost 85 percent male in almost any forum where thought leadership and public conversation take place. If you look at op-ed pages, they run 80 to 85 percent male. If you look at Wikipedia, 87 percent of contributors are male. Congress is 83 percent male, and 85 percent of Hollywood writers, producers, and directors are male. It's overwhelmingly male almost anywhere you see public thought leadership or ideas becoming influential.

"I think a lot of people are surprised at how male it is because they think, 'Oh, there's Maureen Dowd. There's Hillary Clinton. There's Katie Couric.' It feels like there are so many prominent female role models that it's easy to forget that they are actually the exception to the rule."

TB: What does this mean for women?

KO: It obviously means a problem for women because our ideas aren't being expressed and our needs aren't being expressed. Knowledge isn't neutral... it's guided by thinkers. If we are not out there guiding public knowledge, then it's not reflecting our needs or our perspective. But I think that the bigger problem -- bigger because the world is just not women -- the world is men and women. I think the bigger problem is that if you believe that half of the best minds and ideas out there belong to women... then what is the cost to all of us with those voices missing? And what could we accomplish if we invested in that missing brainpower?

TB: Only about 10 and 20 percent of newspaper opinion pieces are written by women. Why is this number so low?

KO: First of all, it's not just women who aren't contributing. It's most of the world. Most of the world is not participating. Only a tiny percentage of people are weighing in. Only a very tiny percentage of people are driving the thought leadership and ideas that influence the world. And it's not that the tiniest percentage of people always have the best ideas. It's the tiniest percentage of people who by accident of birth are the ones who are heard. So it's not just women. It just so happens that women are one of the truly under-capitalized brainpower assets.

"One of the biggest places where you could invest and have the biggest return on investment is if you invest in that brainpower."

We live in a culture of under-representation. Those who are under-represented start to internalize it. There is a lot of research showing that minority voices begin to doubt their own basic competencies. There is a lot of research that shows we believe we can do things because we see other people who look like us doing them. So if you are a woman, a person of color, if you are a poor person, or if you are from the developing world, you are not seeing a lot of people like you participating in thought leadership and public debate. Therefore you are less likely to see yourself doing it.

TB: What about thought leadership? Why do you think there are there so few women?

KO: There has been a long endless debate about why there are so few women in thought leadership. Is it sexism? Is it socialization? Is it biology? All of those questions aren't so interesting to me. Yes, I think sexism exists and I think it has a lot to do with it. Do I think there are biological differences? Sure. Does socialization makes a huge impact? Yes, it does. But I also feel like that is a circular debate. I think there are more pro-active, more results-oriented approaches to the problem. Our answer at The OpEd Project to the circular debate is: Who cares? What if we could just increase the numbers of women submitting? If you are not submitting to the front door of public conversation -- if you are not getting your ideas out there -- then there is no chance for them to become influential and there is no chance for you to become a thought leader. Our approach looks at submissions as a starting point.

TB: Can you give me a specific example about what happens when women's voices are missing from the public conversation?

KO: One of the most poignant examples of what happens when women's voices are missing is with heart disease. For years it was thought that women were hormonally protected from heart disease, and then all of a sudden, 10 or 15 years ago, everything was shook up. We found out it's the number one killer of women. How could it be that for so many years we thought that we were hormonally protected against it? The reason is that all of the research protocols were done by and on men. That tells you what happens.

TB: Have you ever struggled with using your voice?

KO: Oh yes, all of the time [laugh]. I think that's why I am doing this project. When I think about the audience we serve through The OpEd Project, I think of myself as part of the audience. If I didn't understand that dynamic and feel it myself, I wouldn't be doing what I do.

2011-01-19-katie_newyorktimes.jpg TB: Tell me about your first op-ed piece.

KO: One of the first pieces that I wrote looked at media coverage in Haiti. It was an op-ed style article that ran in a publication called NACLA Report on the Americas. It's small, but it's the most widely read English-language publication on the region.

There was a coup in Haiti and then a demonstration against The New York Times in the early '90s. About 100,000 Haitians marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and accused The Times of being the voice of the State Department. This demonstration was reported, but there was no discussion of whether it was serious or not. I thought to myself: I wonder if they are right? I decided to take a couple of weeks tracking who The New York Times actually quoted -- who are they the voice of?

I don't remember exactly the numbers, but it was something like well over 40 percent of sources were foreign diplomats, foreign NGOs, or wealthy Haitians working abroad or with foreign NGOs. When you boiled it down to what percentage of people quoted were just regular majority-class Haitians, it was a very tiny percentage. The people who marched had a point.

That letter ran in a small Latin American journal, but it went everywhere. I got to go on the radio and do all kinds of stuff.

TB: What happened after that?

KO: Then I wrote a series of long letters that ran in The New York Times. The letters were 500 or more words, which is unusually long for letters. It had never occurred to me to write an op-ed piece. I think after the third long letter that I got published, the Letters Editor said to me that I should try submitting to the other side of the page. I felt like I had a responder role. It never occurred to me that I could be the one shaping the ideas from the get-go.

TB: Do you find any commonalities among women in terms of why they struggle with using their voice?

KO: Something that comes up universally in our trainings is massive self-abnegation. I call it the culture of self-abnegation. You see it with men of color as well. It's not just women. You see it with different groups. You rarely see it with people who are very well-represented, such as highly accomplished white men. It's not a negative or a positive judgment. It's more about -- do you feel entitled to have a voice? Do you feel that your voice actually matters in the world?

I think what happens is that we get disconnected from the difference that we make to other people. We start to worry about whether or not we know enough, or whether or not we have expertise. We start to doubt our own basic competencies, and we start to focus on whether we deserve to have a voice.

TB: What do you think we should focus on instead?

KO: We should focus on other people and how important the things we know could be to other people, and what a difference we could make in the world.

TB: You are the author of 'Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality & the Evolution of a Fairy Tale'. The book explores stories told about women over 500 years across multiple continents, and looks at how those stories shape our lives today. What inspired you to write this book?

KO: I studied folklore in college because I was really interested in the way that we assign meaning in the world. I got a fellowship from my university to go study folklore in Haiti. I went to Haiti, but a coup broke out while I was there. I then began writing as a journalist. I think at first I thought those two things were so different. I felt really disjointed and scattered in my career beginnings.

Something happened where I realized that folklore and journalism, storytelling, mythology and media were not really different things at all, not to me anyway. I think a lot of people focus on: Is it fact or fiction? I think that's the wrong question. I think that the right question is: Who is telling the story and how does that shape the results? How does that shape history? To borrow a line from Sweeney Todd: "How does that shape who gets eaten and who gets to eat?"

TB: How did you get your book published?

KO: How it happened is that I wrote a long letter in The New York Times, and from that I got a book contract. Part of what motivated me to start The OpEd Project was a realization about how influential those kinds of things can be. I realized that there are certain forums where ideas become influential. I realized that there are certain forums where you get book contracts, or you get TV opportunities, or you get policy consulting opportunities, or you find yourself at the White House consulting with Clinton's advisors, which I did in my 20s as a result of some op-eds that I wrote.

TB: So The OpEd Project was partly born from this experience?

KO: Yes, I had this sort of awareness that there are people who narrate the world, who own history, who own the story -- and there are people who are characters in the story. The story never reflects very well the needs or perspectives of those who aren't telling it. If you are not the one telling your story, it's not being told the way you would tell it. I had this awareness, and at the same time I had this very influential experience in my 20s of where I discovered how you get listened to, and how people pay attention to you and take you seriously. I saw this is how ideas rise in influence ...this is how you get to be a thought leader... this is how thoughts and ideas actually influence the important conversations of our age.

TB: What do you enjoy most about your work?

KO: I enjoy a lot of things about it, but it's hard too. There are three things that I enjoy a lot. The first is the idea of creating the world, rather than being a player or a pawn. Each of us has the opportunity to create the world that we want to live in. I like that sense of mattering. Whether you succeed or fail, that sense of having the possibility is an amazing feeling. Number two is that I learn something every day about the world. I learn from the people that we work with and from trying to make something happen. I used to live in a world largely of thoughts. Now I live in a world where thoughts result in action every single day. I would say that the third thing -- and maybe this is what I like most of all -- is that I get to have a sense of my value to others. I get to feel it. It is such an amazing feeling to feel like you've played a role in other people's successes.

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Photo courtesy of The OpEd Project

TB: If you had a loudspeaker that could be heard by every woman around the world, what message would you want to impart?

KO: I don't that I would direct my loudspeaker just to women. I think I would be broader than that. I've never thought of what we do as a women's project, not even for a split second. I always think of it as a public knowledge project -- an everyone project. I think I would direct my loudspeaker to people who are under-represented. The goal of what we are doing here is to tell people that they matter - that their brains and their ideas matter. Our goal is to help them understand why and how so that they feel a sense of social obligation to contribute to the world. Our goal is to help them realize that having a big voice is not a selfish, braggy, loud thing to have. It's actually the most generous thing to have.

The OpEd Project currently has programs in six cities -- New York, DC, San Francisco, LA, Chicago and Boston. To sign up for a program or to learn more, visit The OpEd Project website.

Photos 1 & 2 courtesy of Echoing Green.
Photo 3 courtesy of The OpEd Project.

Tabby Biddle, M.S.Ed., is a writer and editor dedicated to the empowerment of women and girls. Her work has been featured by the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, NPR, Current TV, and other online media. She lives in Santa Monica, CA with her husband.