More Female Voices Must be Heard: New York Times Letters to the Editor

06/16/2017 01:48 pm ET

Part One:

On Monday, January 2, 2017, the New York Times presented an all-male lineup in its Letters to the Editor section – not one female.

I had been noticing this gender imbalance in the Op-Ed section of the Times, and was prompted, some years ago, to send the newspaper a letter decrying this inequity. It was not published or acknowledged.

On this particular Monday, spurred by the beginning of a new year, my annoyance and curiosity were at a peak. I examined that day’s three topics highlighted for Letters, to see if they were skewed toward men, providing a rationale, I thought, for having more male responders. I found the themes were not gender related: for the topic of “Filling the Supreme Court Vacancy” all four writers were male; for “Is the Early Decision Process Inherently Unfair?” (referring to the early college admissions process), the two writers were male, and for “L.A.’s Congested Freeway” the single writer was male. There was no excuse; these topics obviously were not dependent on, nor related to, gender.

As a woman, and daily reader of the Times, I was troubled. I would have expected that, in 2017, the published letters would have been more gender balanced. I decided to lead a three-month investigation, working with interns at my non-profit, Have Art: Will Travel! (For Gender Justice), to see if, as my research as an artist in the art world has shown, sexism also was rampant in this Letters to the Editor section of the Times.

Sadly, I found that the newspaper’s gender inequity of January 2, 2017 was not a fluke. In fact, during the three-month period that I studied, most of the Times’ published Letters to the Editor had been male-authored.

Let’s look at a chart with gender breakdowns of each of the three months, as well as a summation chart:

I’ve had my own letters rejected a score of times, with one or two published acceptances. I’m sure this fueled my curiosity, and led me to conduct my survey, which determined genders for all but five of 799 authors of letters during January, February and March 2017. For research purposes, when published letters were sorted by the Times editor into topics which interested women specifically, the topics were noted in the chart to see if more women’s letters were published.

Leaving out the five writers for whom I could not identify gender (see *explanation under chart above) I found that, of the 794 letters published, 63% were by males and 37% were by females.

As an artist who has written in the past of the lopsided gender statistics in the artworld, I pondered possible reasons for this imbalance. Primarily, I wondered whether females submitted fewer letters than males during that 3-month period. As a rule, do women submit less often than men? Since 2010, in lectures accompanying my exhibitions, I’ve suggested that women (in addition to not asking for job promotions and pay raises as often as men), don't write as many letters to the editor, or submit as many Op-Ed articles. I was familiar with Mallory Jean Tenore’s 2011 essay in Poynter, in which she wrote that women have argued for years “that there aren't enough female voices in the opinion pages.” She believed that the “root of the problem, though, isn't so much that news organizations aren't featuring female contributors; it's that they aren't contributing in the first place.” Tenore’s essay was written six years ago. Was this still true in 2017?

In March I wrote a letter to The Times editor, hoping to get a response with the paper’s submission statistics by gender.

Part Two:

Within an hour of my sending my email to both the editor of Letters, Sue Mermelstein, and the Public Editor, Elizabeth Spayd, I received an email response from each:

From Sue Mermelstein:

Linda: We are aware of the fact that sometimes our Letters page is dominated by male voices. This reflects the fact that a large majority of our letter writers are men – why, we’re not sure. We don’t keep statistics, but a simple scan of our inbox makes this quite evident. This is apparently true of opinion pages and comments throughout the industry, from what I've read.
See for example 

Mermelstein went on to say:

We pick letters based on merit, not gender. Typically we decide that we want to use a letter well before we reach the signature line, so we pick them gender-blind. That said, we do sometimes try to get a better gender balance if we find that we’ve picked only letters from men on a given topic. We don't feel comfortable choosing letters based on a "quota" of men or women. But we are sensitive to perceptions of gender imbalance. I'd like to point out that the time frame that you are studying may not be representative. Politics has of course dominated our pages in the last few months, and our politics letter writers skew even more disproportionately male than the norm. We find that certain topics, like education and health, tend to draw a larger response from women.  The bottom line is: We wish more women would write letters to us!  I hope that's helpful. Feel free to get back in touch if there's anything else you need. If your article prompts more women to write letters to the editor, we'd be thrilled. Sue --  Sue Mermelstein Staff Editor, Letters Dept.

This response was encouraging. Not only was there a female in the position of editor, but she was aware of the male-dominated situation and wished it were different.

Also noteworthy is Mermelstein’s comment that The Times “politics letter writers skew even more disproportionately male than the norm.” Since politics continues to captivate the news, this may mean that we may continue to see more letters from men published, unless women focus in on areas that they may not have previously been drawn to, like politics. Can more women step up to the plate in areas that are more male-dominated? For any letter-writing to The Times, a good place to start would be to check out the “tips” that The Times provides for those wishing to submit a letter.

This effort has paid off for Steven Ludsin, whom I met at a recent cocktail party, who told me that “over three decades, I’ve had about 150 letters published in The New York Times.” Ludsin’s technique was “to have each letter be responsive to a particular article, be succinct and stay within 150 words. The conclusion is critical, and the last sentence is key.”

The links Mermelstein provided in her email response are also helpful. I included her first link from Poynter in Part One of this essay, but her second link, with an essay by Caitlin Dewey writing for the Washington Post, included pithy, must-read 2014 statistics by Emma Pierson. In a paragraph which warns against a world without women’s opinions, Pierson starts with a reference to Woody Allen’s alleged sexual assault of Dylan Farrow and goes on from there:

A world of all men is one in which Dylan Farrow’s story is doubted as often as it is believed; a world of all women is one in which it is accepted almost without question. We see the consequences of this not just when women comment in the New York Times, but when a woman who has been sexually assaulted remains silent rather than reporting the crime to a male-dominated police department; when a historically male Congress lags on legislation to protect sexual assault victims on college campuses; when women in the male-dominated military are more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than killed by enemy fire.

In a subsequent email to me, Mermelstein added:

I'm told that The Times doesn't release specific statistics on readership of particular sections, just overall readership, which actually skews female:
Print: 51% male / 49% female http://nytmediakit.com/newspaper [click on Weekday/Sunday Audience]
Digital: 46% male / 54% female http://nytmediakit.com/digital

Note that by viewing the above links in Mermelstein’s email, other statistics are included, such as median age and income bracket of readership.

Happily, at the same time that Sue Mermelstein responded, I also received a separate letter from Elizabeth Spayd, The Times Public Editor:

Hi Linda This is a question for Sue, as the letters that come in to us are separate than those published as Letters to the Editor. But a good project to do. I've written myself about the dearth of women inside the building.

Indeed she has. In The Declining Fortunes of Women at the Times Spayd mentioned “a piercing problem at The Times. Women have skidded down the power structure since Jill Abramson was dismissed as executive editor three years ago, with fewer females leading big news departments and fewer coming up the pipeline. Thus, fewer women decide what big stories are assigned, what broad coverage priorities are set, and what a re-envisioned Times should look like.”

Although Spayd wrote that there are “probably more distinguished women in this newsroom than at most any newspaper in the country” she added that men in 2016 “accounted for 61 percent of the bylines that appeared in the front section of The Times” and she surmised that the “overall scarcity of women may contribute to the persistent complaints from readers who see a sexist tinge to elements of the news coverage.”

Readers, the Public Editor continued, complained about “an incessant attention to a woman’s looks. Theresa May’s leopard heels. Hillary Clinton’s signature pantsuits.” One reader “noticed that in the most recent Year in Photographs, only six of more than 40 photographs were credited to women in the print feature” and another reader “complained of obituary pages dominated by men.” Spayd confirmed that plaint with 2016 obit statistics: “75 percent memorialized the life of a man.” Now I knew that this gender imbalance was continuing into the present.

Spayd additionally shared this lamentation: “’We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are still times when I’m the only woman in a meeting, particularly on national security topics,’ said Elisabeth Bumiller, who runs the Washington bureau and thus oversees one of the biggest stories in journalism.” Spayd offered that being “the only woman in a meeting can produce a feeling of having walked into the men’s room. But more significantly a gender, or racial, imbalance changes what’s considered news. When you combine the two variables — race and gender — you’re no longer representing the audience you’re trying to reach.” The Times Public Editor concluded that “If more seats are to be taken up by women, in critical coverage meetings and in top leadership, it will be up to men to make that happen. They are, after all, the ones with the power to do so.”

Yes, men do have the power to help, and we need them to speak out in greater numbers. One man who devotes an enormous amount of time to leveling the gender playing field, is Michael Kimmel, who has written more than a dozen books on masculinity and leads the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities.

But women can’t sit around and wait for men to give up power. We must be active, assertive, ambitious and, even (gulp) aggressive.

One organization that is not waiting around for anyone to share power is the Op Ed Project. Founded by Katie Orenstein their starting goal is “to increase the number of women thought leaders [italics mine] contributing to key commentary forums.” They “examine commentary forums because they predict leadership and thought leadership at the highest levels in all fields.” For statistics on how many women get published, they presented this informative data which they collected in 2011.

It is necessary to know why, and in what percentages, women submit and get published in Op Ed essays, and to know that Letters to the Editor are almost always in response to these essays. Then, hopefully, female letter-writers will, in greater numbers, use their mighty pens (whether digital or hand-held) to make their voices heard around the globe. World leaders and locals are certainly in need of us.

When thanking both editors, I learned that the position of Public Editor had been eliminated in a shuffle of jobs at The Times, but the Letters Editor was quick to reply to my letter of appreciation:

You're welcome. And you'll be happy to hear that we are making an even greater effort to be sure that more women's voices are on our page but that would be much easier if more women would write letters.

We now know that The Times is making an even greater effort to publish letters by women. Can a greater effort be made by women to have their opinions heard?

Linda Stein has two traveling solo exhibitions, The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein, and Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females: Tapestries and Sculpture by Linda Stein, traveling the country through 2025. Her web site is: www.LindaStein.com and her archives are at Smith College. Stein is Founding President of the non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation, Have Art: Will Travel! Inc.
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