'The OpEd Project' Tells Women To Pen Their Views

Catherine Orenstein is the creator of the initiative called The Op-Ed Project. It is designed to empower more women — from stay-at-home-moms to women who are incarcerated — to submit opinion pieces to the nation's newspapers and influence policy and public discussion.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we have another perspective on what's missing from the news, specifically the opinion pages. If you turn to the editorial pages of most major newspapers, the vast majority of the opinion articles are written by men, surveys show. Barbara Ehrenreich, who we just heard from, is actually one of the few women commentators whose articles regularly appear in major newspapers. And Catherine Orenstein is working to change that. She travels across the country finding women who are experts in their own right and teaches them how to submit op-eds for publication. Her initiative is called the Op-Ed Project. And Catherine Orenstein joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. CATHERINE ORENSTEIN (Director, Op-Ed Project): It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Can we just start with the basics because I'm not sure everybody knows this. What is an op-ed and why do they matter?

Ms. ORENSTEIN: An op-ed is an opinion essay, but we actually treat op-ed as a concept, a short-form evidence-based argument of public value, public interest, regardless of whether it appears in the newspaper, online, in broadcast media, wherever.

MARTIN: And why do they matter?

Ms. ORENSTEIN: They matter for a lot of reasons. For one, they heed all other media. They drive thought leadership in America. It's where ideas become policies and where people get tapped to be leaders. Deans of universities run for Congress.

If you look at the statistics, in fact, they are remarkably the same across all platforms. So if you look at op-ed pages, which run about 85 percent male, and then you took at television, political talk shows on Sunday morning, about 84 percent of the pundits are male, and then you look at Congress, that's 83 percent male, and that's not a coincidence. That's a spectrum of thought leadership. And opinion forums, whether they're online or in paper or whatever they are, are a gateway. You know how people say marijuana is a gateway drug? Well, you could say that key opinion forums - op-ed pages, online forums - are a gateway into public debate.

MARTIN: And why do you think it's so overwhelmingly male? And I do believe that - I think it's important that you cited the statistics, and I think a lot of people would be surprised by that and still wouldn't necessarily believe it, in part because they see the number of women presenters in the news - for example, women television anchors, local anchors, and they say well how can that be? But you're saying the numbers bear up over time very consistently, that it's not just sort of a minor difference. It's a huge difference. Why do you think that is?

Ms. ORENSTEIN: You know, it's a really good question, and the debate has been fierce, and usually it runs somewhere between is it sexism or is it biology, or are women socialized differently?

We look at it, and we look at a much more obvious, much more solvable and much more measurable part of the problem, which is that women don't submit op-eds with anywhere near the frequency that man do. They actually - in lots of fields.

So we're not - again, I want to say we're not just talking about paper or even online, but in lots of ways women don't submit. It's about 85 percent of submissions. Actually, 90 percent of submissions at the Washington Post by their own internal accounting last year came from men, and 88 percent of their bylines last year - again, by their own internal account - were men.

So we're actually fairly represented, women are, in relationship to our submission ratio, if you think of it that way. So what we do at The Op-Ed Project is we say, you know, it could be sexism, it could be biology. How would we know if we're not submitting? Isn't the obvious solution to get more smart women submitting? And furthermore, what if it's just a pattern?

What if the reason that it's like this is a numbers game, a pattern that keeps replicating itself? And patterns can change, and actually we are seeing them change even through our own project in a relatively short of amount of time, but they change in lots of ways, and we happen to have a black president now, something that people didn't think possible for a long time, and that's a result of not just a single person but a lot of change and participation, a pattern that has changed significantly. So it's important to remember that these things are not sort of universal, archetypal, unchangeable, set-in-stone dynamics.

MARTIN: And you mentioned that you want smart women to step up and get to that keyboard and start writing, but what kind of smart women are you looking for? I mean, the only other reason I would mention that is that I would bet you that a number of conservatives, you know, people from the right to the center-right would argue that it's really, it's conservatives who are missing from the opinion page, and I know that's something that people could argue about. So I want to ask you, what kinds of voices are you looking for?

Ms. ORENSTEIN: We look across the political and in all fields. We define expert, quote-unquote expert, as a woman who has knowledge that would be valuable in the public sphere - expertise, information, something to contribute. So we work with top universities. You know, we work with Yale, Stanford, Princeton, but we also work with a homeless shelter and a women's prison re-entry program because who better to talk about prison reform than women who have been through it or in the system?

We work with a number of non-profits. We have sessions that are open to the public in six cities now: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, D.C., Chicago coming up. In fact, anyone who - you know, we encourage women who would like to participate in this program to join us. If we can be of assistance, we would love that, and you can find that information on our Web site, theopedproject.org.

MARTIN: So politics no barrier to entry. All points of view welcome.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Absolutely not. In fact, the premise of our project is that a diversity of ideas will create a stronger result always.

MARTIN: So what's the trick to writing a successful op-ed? And I do take your point that you're talking about all platforms, not just the written but also programs, political programs, Sunday morning talk shows, which I do have some experience with myself. What's the trick of it?

Ms. ORENSTEIN: I think there are some basic concepts. What we do in our program, initially this project was so pragmatic. We shared really basic information, what I call pass-code information that gets shared among people who - you know, like you, for example, people who know how to participate in public debate already, but if you're not in that pool of people, you might not have that very basic information, and as you know, the pool is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly privileged and overwhelmingly male, and so it tends to get shared among that tiny group of people.

So a lot of the information we share is very basic. We don't have any monopoly on that information. It's: What's a lead? What's a news hook? How do you - what questions do you need to answer for an editor to take you seriously?

But over time, because we've done hundreds and hundreds of these sessions, and they're essentially like very powerful focus groups with intense, highly intelligent, super-experienced women, over time we've come to address the questions that women repeatedly bring up, and I don't think this is unique to women.

I think this is probably something that you would find in any marginalized group, any group that's marginalized from public debate, and I call it the culture of self-abnegation, and it is all of the things that people say, all of the ways in which marginalized groups buy into or begin to actually rationalize and thereby collude in their own marginalization.

I'm not saying that in any way to suggest blame, but rather what we see over and over again, when we bring together a group, is people telling us within the first hour, people with burning issues to talk about, telling us why we shouldn't listen to them.

You know, I don't want to self-promote. I don't know if I have enough information. Probably somebody else knows more. And essentially what we deal with, we've created a context and exercises to get people to think about the logical implications of that kind of thinking…

MARTIN: And - I'm sorry…

Ms. ORENSTEIN: ..exclusion.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, we're almost out of time. Have you moved the dial at all?

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. One of the reasons that this project exists -you know, I'm a writer and a journalist, and I wouldn't be doing this if we didn't see a tremendous impact. We had really phenomenal results. We see every single day new women publishing. You can see them. We publish highlights on our Web site almost every day.

And you asked Tina Tchen how would she know, you know, when she succeeds, when she sees success. We see success not only by the concrete results we see every day, but also we'll know we've succeeded when we've reached a tipping point where we can see that the pattern has changed.

MARTIN: And you might be able to go out of business.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: That's our plan, in fact.

MARTIN: Catherine Orenstein is the founder of The Op-Ed Project, where she teaches and encourages women of all political persuasions and backgrounds to write op-eds for publication. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Pleasure to be here.

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