It’s Hard to Be a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

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I thought about this as I–okay, I didn’t actually watch the debates last night. I raced home late after meeting a deadline to pick up the kid from the sitter and then the kid wanted a cookie and had to read Paddington which is like 80 pages long. But I read about the debates in the paper and heard about them on NPR this morning.

This being an unusual, pared-down event, CNN and what was described as a liberal evangelical group called Sojourner hosted Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards last night in a discussion about faith. Besides being a front runner in the Democratic scrum for president and the wife of Bill, Hillary Clinton will bathe in an even more intense spotlight this week as two Very Important Books about her by Very Important Journalists land in stores. Okay, I haven’t actually read the books, but I read and heard about them. And from what I read and hear, they dissect how the woman became who she is today.

Which got me to thinking: what kind of woman enters presidential politics–or any male-dominated field, for that matter?

I found some answers in a long essay written by Amy Sullivan in a 2005 issue of Washington Monthly. Our boss announced today that Sullivan is joining our staff as nation editor. She’ll take a seat at a long, shiny conference table where only a handful of faces will be of other women. You see, we, too, work in a male-dominated field. TIME has historically been written and edited and designed and photographed for the most part by men. There are women here, of course, including one of our top editors, Priscilla Painton, and our top marquee writer, Nancy Gibbs. There are women on staff who shape our political coverage, including Karen Tumulty and Ana Marie Cox (both of whom also blog over at Swampland).

Sullivan acknowledged the gross lack of women’s voices in journalism, particularly in opinion pages and political coverage. Studies show 10% to 20% of opinion pieces in major newspapers are written by women: about one female byline for every nine male. She writes:

Gender gaps have narrowed in other fields–women have gained ground in computer sciences, math departments, and science labs, and women now constitute the majority of incoming medical school classes. In journalism, too, newsrooms and television studios are filled with more female reporters and–to a lesser extent–editors and producers than ever before. On the op-ed pages of major newspapers, however, the number of female columnists is roughly that of 25 years ago. Political magazines–with the notable exceptions of The Nation and Salon–are run, edited, and written by men (indeed, the masthead of our own magazine, which has launched some of the sharpest pens in journalism, includes only four female names in the list of 36 former editors; that’s 11 percent.) Even in that brave new democratizing world of blogs, the professional bloggers all have names like Mickey and Eric and Andrew and Josh.

When she asked why so few women worked at Washington Monthly, her previous employer, she was told that very few women applied. She found this answer “surprising and unsatisfying.” But it turned out to be true. “Where bias does exist, men are not exclusively at fault,” she writes: women take themselves out of the running even before the race begins.

Still, society plays a large role in why. Sullivan cites studies that show bias among grade-school teachers in how they select and encourage boys and girls to speak up in class. Girls’ confidence diminishes as they wend their way through school to college. And finally, studies show a selection bias in both men and women: when shown paintings by “male” painters, both genders valued it higher than when the painter was identified as “female.” A famous Princeton study showed a dramatic surge in the hiring of women by symphonies when screens were erected during auditions.

In journalism, the effect of a society that shapes “silent femmes” is deep:

I’ve seen plenty to convince me that self-selection is a major reason that women’s voices are generally absent from our pages–I can count on one hand the number of pitches I have received from women. But it’s also clear to me that this profession is tougher than it needs to be for women. I’ve interviewed a dozen women who have worked in opinion journalism over several decades, and we all have similar stories and frustrations. To even get to this point, we’ve survived the socialization gauntlet and are more opinionated and driven than most women. But once we get in the boys’ club, we find out that’s not enough–we also have to play by the boys’ rules.

Almost every woman I talked to dreads editorial meetings, the time when writers float their ideas and vigorously debate the content of future issues. The meetings can be intellectually stimulating and exhilarating, but they also involve a lot of yelling, with each writer fighting to be heard. For many women who have become writers precisely because they find it easier to argue in a written format, the meetings can be exhausting. If she’s willing to yell, and to keep yelling until everyone stops and listens to her, she then gets to defend her proposed article against withering attacks from colleagues who are trained to tear it apart (and sometimes see the exercise as sport). If “not interesting, not new, not worth publishing” is the declared verdict, she is supposed to persist in efforts to convince the room. But it takes sterner stuff than most of us are made of to set your shoulders for one more go-’round and head back into the fray. While there are outliers, the average woman just doesn’t enjoy full-contact political sparring as much as the average man.

So far, I feel Hillary Clinton has conducted herself like a lady, even while taking blows like a man. Whatever her faults, she’s giving my daughter’s generation–and mine–a lesson in what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.