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Just Give It a Shot, Girls

By Zofia Smardz
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page B01

What do you think -- are women as opinionated as men? I know that's a hoot-you-out-of-the-room question most places these days. But here in news opinionland, it's been topic number one thanks to a recent kerfuffle between certain outspoken women and the editors of various national newspaper opinion pages.

It started, as such things often do, as a fairly routine wrangle over access. Why, the critics demanded, are almost all the columnists and contributors on the op-ed pages of papers like The Post and The New York Times men? Why aren't more women being let in the door? That's not fair, is it?

Well, no, that wouldn't be. But then things took a more intriguing turn. One editor -- a woman, it so happens -- offered the opinion that members of her sex are just less comfortable expressing pure opinion. Of course the critics weren't buying, retorting that the problem is simply discrimination by male editors who still dominate editorial page staffs. But -- not so, countered the editors' champions. Because if that's all it is, then how do you explain the bloggers? Yup -- turns out there are way fewer females than males firing off-the-hip convictions into no-entry-barred cyberspace, too.

Now I find all this very interesting. Because I'm a woman. And an opinion editor. It's my job to chase down articles and contributors for the first five pages of this section every week. (We have no stable of columnists, à la the op-ed pages, here in Outlook.) And I know who's constantly beating on my door to be heard, and who's a little more inclined to hang back. It won't surprise you who's who, either. I took an informal count while writing this, and over a recent span of seven days, unsolicited manuscripts to our section were running 7 to 1 in favor of, yes, those pesky, ubiquitous men.

Why can't they just get out of the picture, you wonder? And the women -- there are plenty of smart, knowledgeable, opinionated ones out there. Why aren't more of them muscling to get in? Well, since I'm always on the prowl for promising people to write for Outlook, I have a few thoughts about that. And even though I normally labor behind the scenes, I thought I'd pipe up and share them with you.

When Opiniongate broke, it reminded me right away of a neuropsychiatrist I ghostwrote a book for a few years ago. A female neuropsychiatrist, by the way. She told me lots of edifying stuff about the science of the brain, including certain -- dare I say it? -- innate differences between women and men that, yes, Virginia, apparently do exist.

For instance: Did you know that men are generally oriented toward the left brain, the mind's intellectual and linguistic power center, while women tend to use both sides of the brain? But the left brain is the dominant side. It likes to run things, be in control. So that (plus the testosterone, of course) makes men more assertive. Unafraid to take risks and willing to take a shot at anything, anytime. Women, being tuned in to the more cautious (and more creative) right brain, are more reluctant to do something unless they're sure they're going to get it right.

Here's how the neuropsychiatrist put it: Think of a man as carrying a quiverful of arrows. When he spies a target, he lets fly with the whole caboodle. Most of his arrows will miss the bull's-eye, but one is likely to hit. And that's the one people will remember -- and applaud. A woman, though, proceeds slowly and considers carefully. Only when she's pretty sure she has a perfect shot does she send off a single arrow. And she hits the mark! Amazing! But . . . too bad. The guy's already walked off with the prize.

I like this little neuropsychological morality tale, because it seems to me to dovetail so neatly with what I observe on the job all the time. If opinions were really arrows, I'd look like a bristling porcupine thanks to all the male views fired into my hide in any given week. But if I relied on mostly women, I'd be a pretty scrawny hedgehog. So I feel like the brain researchers may be seriously on to something.

Here in Outlook, our consciousness is actually raised quite high, thanks to an enlightened (really) chief editor (male!), who's concerned about both fairness and giving readers what they want. What we all primarily believe they want, of course, is informed, lively, eye-opening discussion on the urgent, controversial, historic issues of the day. Plus baseball. And so what we're after first and foremost are great ideas and provocative opinions that shake up the debate, and it doesn't matter, in principle, who has them, male or female. To the best thinkers go the column inches.

But we also think that readers want commentary from lots of different sources and perspectives. Besides, the conversation's always hotter if you mix it up, turn to folks who look at things differently, come from different places, know different things. So we make a concerted push to overcome that 7-to-1 male-female ratio and solicit women to write nearly every week. And on all sorts of subjects -- even hard ones, like the budget and taxes and outsourcing and war. Not just "women's issues."

Most of the time, we do tick that ratio upward, winding up with two or three female bylines out of seven or eight stories per section, for an overall batting average of about .275. That's respectable in baseball, I'm told, but in opinionland, it's less than good enough.

So we step up our efforts -- and it does take effort. It would be very easy to fill the section up with men every week. Not so women -- I think in the roughly three years I've been here, it's happened once. Now, I know that's partly because in lots of fields -- foreign policy, economics, nuclear weaponry and, oh yes, science and math -- there simply aren't (yet?) as many women as men to call on. But I still think there's more to it than that.

We have a little running inside joke here: Call a man on Monday, say you're from Outlook and he blurts, "How many words and okay if I get it to you by 5 o'clock?" Call a woman, spell out the idea, have a nice long conversation, ask her if she'll write, listen to the long pause, she says I don't know, I have to think what I'd say (!), you press a little, tell her she can have till Thursday, she says, well, I have class and faculty meetings, my husband's out of town, I have to take the kids to soccer practice, it might be hard, you press some more, she says again let me think about it, can I call you tomorrow?

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