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How to make it as a female op-ed star

By Sarah Burnside - posted Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Female participation in the mainstream media is currently receiving sustained attention and, unsurprisingly, the statistics are not cause for complacency among aspiring women writers.

A recent Women in the Media study of opinion pieces published in the mainstream media in one week found, for instance, that:

  • women wrote approximately one third of opinion pieces and commentary;
  • men wrote almost three quarters of the op-eds on politics; and
  • the only fields in which women wrote more than 50 per cent of pieces were relationships/parenting and specifically gender focussed articles.

A New Matilda article featuring female journalists, editors, activists and academics' perspectives on this data quoted writer Stephanie Convery, who argued:

"that the majority of political commentary published in the mainstream media is written by men matters, as does the fact that women dominate only in the fields of gender studies, child-rearing and relationships…both perpetuate and reiterate conscious and unconscious biases about what constitutes a "male" or "female" social role."

These biases give women some advantages within the world of op-ed writing – if they are prepared to lay bare their personal lives and restrict themselves to particular topics. Women candominate in these fields, and within areas such as fashion or lifestyle magazines, but as Convery notes, such dominance has pernicious consequences.

These opportunities also come with inbuilt limitations. English writer and activist Laurie Penny noted in a 2012 interview that the "first two articles I ever had commissioned by a major newspaper were about my experience of anorexia as a teenager and my brief stint as a burlesque dancer". These pieces had followed on the heels of unsuccessful pitches of "any number of serious political pieces which didn't have anything to do with me or my arse".

Penny explained that "[y]oung women in particular have to work very hard to get into this industry, and it's often a toss-up…between getting work and being taken seriously".

Some embrace the opportunities offered by a clickbait-hungry media and a prurient public. A recent xoJane piece on "building your personal brand" by Deputy Editor Mandy Stadt noted that the "media likes Manufactured Trend and Zeitgeist and Feelgood and Thinkpiece with a splash of Manufactured Outrage".


Depressingly, this was not a criticism or a lament, but advice. Stadt continued: "if you are savvy and know how to make a reporter's or a TV booker's job more interesting, oh my God will they love you and scoop you up in an instant".

In this formulation, the quality of the "product" seems irrelevant: do what you can to get scooped up, and reap the rewards. Even better: make yourself the product.

It is of course not only female writers who are encouraged to commodify themselves. Margaret Atwood's statement at the 2013 Perth Writers Festival that she saw writing as a "vocation" scrapes up hard against the omnipresent notion that all authors must market themselves like so many brands of laundry powder.

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This article was first published in New Matilda on April 22, 2013.

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About the Author

Sarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She tweets cautiously at @SarahEBurnside.

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