Project seeks to inspire more women to write op-ed pieces

Women are far from achieving parity on the editorial pages of America: Between 80 and 90 percent of a newspaper's opinion essays—often called "op-eds"—are written by men.

Are men more opinionated? Do editors discriminate against women? Is it a left-brain/right-brain thing? Whatever the reason, the most straightforward solution seemed clear: Get more women to write. As Priya Satia, assistant professor of history, said: "Someone has to sidestep the 'cause' issue and get people to submit."

With that kind of pragmatism, Stanford's partnership with the OpEd Project, an effort headed by prominent author and op-ed writer Catherine Orenstein, was launched last year. Satia and a dozen other award-winning researchers and authors participated in a seminar last month in a bid to join today's opinion leaders.

Stanford's OpEd Project partnership began when Karen Parker, assistant professor of psychiatry, heard Orenstein speak at a 2006 conference for young women sponsored by the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, a group that fosters women's professional training and leadership, where Orenstein is a fellow. Orenstein's coaching met with success: That year, a Woodhull session for 12 women led to 12 published op-eds (some women published more than one).

Parker saw that Orenstein had "a tremendous potential to advance women's voices" and introduced Orenstein to Michelle Cale, then associate director of the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, in 2007. Orenstein's project was "very much in tune with goals of the Clayman Institute," said Cale, who also saw op-ed pages as "a key place to influence public discourse."

LaDoris Cordell, who retired this year as special counselor to the president for campus relations, worked with Orenstein to bring the OpEd Project to Stanford last August for a seminar, funded by the Office of the Provost and hosted by the Clayman Institute. (Cordell published op-eds in Salon and the San Francisco Chronicle as a result of the sessions.)

While Stanford was the first university to bring Orenstein to campus, several others have since followed, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard and about 10 other institutions.

The effort to get more women on editorial pages continued last month when faculty and staff crowded around the conference table at the Clayman Institute. In the opening exercise, Orenstein asked the women to introduce themselves by naming the area in which they are experts.

Two faculty members balked: "It's so hard to utter that phrase. It sounds boastful," said one. "There's always someone at Stanford with better credentials," said another. The participants were leading scholars and authors at the top of their fields.

Orenstein pointed out the irony of "smart women explaining why you shouldn't listen to them." She also pointed out that she had never heard a group of men react the same way.

"Pretend you were in a roomful of cancer patients, and you thought you had a cure for cancer," she said. "It's not about you; it's about everybody else."

In such a circumstance, she said, "Is it possible people might laugh at you? Sure. But who cares?

"Let that be the driving context—an awareness of your potential impact on others. Who cares if I feel boastful if it helps other people in the room?"

As a result of her work at Stanford, Orenstein has launched a mentor-editor program to pair seminar participants with an experienced writer or editor for one-time guidance and suggestions.

According to Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology, "I've learned more from it than any other media training I've participated in," particularly because she learned to "translate what you're learning into an actual product." Eberhardt published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times following last year's seminar.

As a researcher in the controversial area of social representations of race, Eberhardt was used to discussing her work when reporters called. What she hadn't done was shape her own story for the outside world to spotlight its relevance.

The New York Post's controversial cartoon linking an ape with the Obama administration was Eberhardt's moment to strike.

After Orenstein's seminar, Eberhardt knew how to structure the article. She also learned not to be deterred by a first rejection. Her eventual Los Angeles Times piece not only received national attention but served as a calling card for other media, including the New York Times.

"It was an eye-opening experience. I wouldn't have persevered if I hadn't taken the workshop," Eberhardt said.

After last month's session, Satia was a convert: "It's really empowering—and efficient. In a day-and-a-half, you come out with a different set of skills, a different understanding of your skills and a different sense of your own legitimacy to speak in the public sphere."

"It's not necessarily obvious to academics," she added. "Sometimes academics want to be cloistered."

Satia added that "it takes an incredible amount of guts to make the kind of intervention the OpEd Project is trying to make. They're taking on our entire public conversation."