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Advice to women writers on the fifth ‘F’

A study released last week by a group called the Op-Ed Project has some disconcerting news for “legacy media.” Turns out that not only are newspapers losing influence, they also favor publishing men’s ideas. Maybe the two are related, but over a 12-week period late last year, only 20 percent of op-eds were written by women. The number itself is disturbing enough, but the study also showed that women were much more likely to get published if they wrote on “pink” topics, dubbed the four “Fs” — food, family, furniture (home), and fashion.

The study’s focus on “pink” suggests that these issues are not serious enough. But there should be no silencing of the pink. Women’s voices on these matters, which include reproductive rights, are essential. The real problem is why so few women are writing on global affairs and national security. For every 100 opinion columns published about security issues, only 15 were written by women.


Some explanations that have been offered tread uncomfortably close to gender stereotypes: Perhaps, some suggest, women are more comfortable writing about personal issues or are too nuanced in their thinking to reduce complex issues into 700 words. Or maybe more men have the capacity to sound certain, even if rarely right. But there’s a more obvious obstacle. While powerful women in government — Clinton, Napolitano, Rice — belie the notion that national security is a man’s field, the academy and think tanks that house foreign affairs opinion writers are still predominantly male.

It’s time to throw open those doors. And as a woman who was in government and now writes mostly in the fifth “F” — foreign policy — I can write my very first advice column to anyone who is aiming for a voice, especially those who want to write about all wars, not just the mommy ones.


First, the world is complicated: make it less so, but it still will be complicated. A column should illuminate, but it is easy to get bogged down in all the subtle nuances. I remember talking to a friend who is a China expert; I was looking for a quote, but after an hour she was still at the Cultural Revolution. Columns do not have to be dumb, but they have to be timely.

Second, have a point, and believe in it. When I took this job, a well-known foreign affairs columnist told me that if, after research, I couldn’t write a first draft in two hours, drop it because it meant I didn’t have anything to say. That has held true, but what is also true is that self-doubt is natural. When a female colleague and I are struggling with our columns, we joke that we only half believe what we are writing. (In reality, we are usually at about 90 percent, and always aiming for 100, but it helps to give yourself some wiggle room, at least in the writing process.)

Third, it’s sometimes useful to throw out words that sound manly: proposing a “more aggressive” strategy is my personal favorite, but I’ve also been inclined to use a sports analogy that is generally offered up by my 8-year-old son.

Fourth, take the online comments with a grain of salt. A quick study of my colleagues at the Globe suggest that women writers suffer ad hominem attacks much more often than men. The first comment I ever got ended with “how the hell did you get this job anyway?” Seasoned experts in a field will also question your knowledge. Get the facts right, but you don’t have to be the most credentialed person in the room, just the most persuasive.


Fifth, the columnist David Ignatius advised me to get out of the office. He is right. If women allegedly prefer to write about things that are personal, then make the world personal.

Sixth, don’t make nice. The opinion page should provide new solutions or a new way of looking at an issue; it is not a place to make lots of friends.

Finally, remember that women constitute half the world, so they have every right to equality in discussing it, whether in bylines or as experts quoted or as the people whose stories are told.

The Boston Globe was not among the 10 media outlets reviewed by the study, which is somewhat annoying, because the paper has many outstanding women columnists, standing on a platform built by the legendary Ellen Goodman. In time, maybe even more opinionated women will take to the page about all issues, in every shade of color.

I half believe it, at least.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.