In the last couple years, we at HPR have noticed a growing gender imbalance in the makeup of our staff. Of the 16 current members of the editorial board, only two are female. Among our new crop of writers, the divide is not much better: less than a third of the writers for the fall issue of the HPR will be women. Finally, only three out of our 16 new “online columnists” are female.
I noticed recently that the Crimson‘s new batch of columnists has a similar imbalance: two women and eight men. Getting curious, I started checking some other campus hubs of opinion-mongering. The Harvard Salient: eight out of 25 editors are female. Perspective: five out of 14. I know this bean-counting is kind of crass, but I think the issues it raises are important.
It’d be easy to dismiss any particular instance of gender imbalance as a fluke. “Sure, HPR has only two female editors right now, but there were more last year and there will surely be more next year.” And that statement is probably true, but that’s far from proving that men and women are equally represented, and have been equally represented, in the magazine.
It’d be even easier to say that, even if the gender imbalance is real, it’s certainly not the result of active prejudice or discrimination. Nobody in the HPR elections last year said, “Let’s not take her, she’s a girl.” And I’m sure nobody anywhere else said anything like that, either.
It’d be even easier still to say, well, if there aren’t women represented in the HPR or in the Crimson‘s columns, that’s probably because women just didn’t want to do those activities. And that might be true, but why would it be true? Would it be true because women by nature don’t like politics and don’t like expressing their opinions? That idea is anathema, to most of us anyway, and rightly so. (Obviously this is Rachel Wagley bait, and I look forward to her taking it.)
The other possibility, of course, is that there are social, that is nonbiological, reasons why women and men differ in the extent of their representation in the world of politics, journalism, and opinion-mongering. (By the way, New York Times: two out of 11. Washington Post: five out of 34.) We are all conditioned in various ways to think of certain social roles and personality types as distinctively masculine or feminine. As Ann Friedman writes in the American Prospect, “there are cultural, structural reasons why men are typically more assertive, more self-promotional, and more successful everywhere from the boardroom to the op-ed pages to the halls of Congress. This is much bigger than women’s individual behavior.”
If you accept that, and I do, the question becomes what we can do about it. Friedman disparages two pieces of advice that are often given: first, that women should act more like men, and second, that they should “try to get ahead by playing up what supposedly makes them different.” Either of those solutions might work for particular women in particular situations. But as broader solutions they draw our attention away from the real problem, which is not how women behave, exactly, but how those behaviors are perceived by peer-groups that are often dominated by men, and how those behaviors are inculcated in a society that still harbors certain assumptions about how women and men are and ought to be.
Those two pieces of advice might, in fact, set women up for a fall. If women play up the supposedly “feminine” sides of their personalities, might they not be passed over in fields dominated by men and associated with “manly” qualities? Conversely, if women try to mimic men, might they not suffer a backlash and “be declared uppity bitches,” in Friedman’s terms?
Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave us with many concrete things we can do to change the situation. Friedman ends her column by exhorting us to stop telling women “how to get ahead in an unjust system” and start to “change the system itself.” How does one change such a system? Isn’t it by changing the behavior of many individuals? I don’t know, but I’d love to get a conversation started about this question.
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