Media & PR

Why do men dominate newspaper letters pages?

If you look at the political blogs which are most read by MPs and political journalists, you find that they are run by a nearly all-male cast: Jonathan Isaby, Tim Montgomerie, Alex Smith, Stephen Tall, myself and so on.

As I wrote when looking at the impact of the internet on politics in 2010:

That’s not to say there aren’t many, very good, female political bloggers. But overall, despite political blogging being a relatively new field which started up long after women got the vote, the idea of equal pay for equal work became widely accepted as obviously right, and so on – the highest profile political blogs – judged by criteria such as which ones journalists say they read or MPs say they rate – are no more an advert for diversity than the make up of Parliament. In other words, not much of one.

It’s a curio as to why this is the case – especially when, on the ONS’s figures, the majority of bloggers in the UK are female (and the majority of internet users are now female too), but that would be a talk in itself for another time.

One possible partial explanation is highlighted by the pattern of letters to newspapers, as Journalism.co.uk shows in its discussion of why men dominate in that medium:

The theme was picked up by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in January 2010.

“Why is the letters page, of whichever newspaper you care to choose, invariably dominated by men?” the programme asked. The Observer has actually called for more women to write in.

Jenni Murray talked to Stephen Pritchard, readers’ editor at the Observer, and Sarah Sands, deputy editor of the London Evening Standard. Pritchard and Sands seemed to agree that time was a crucial factor – maybe women had less of it. Sands also identified a reluctance on the part of women to declare their opinion publicly.

But does the lack of time and innate modesty theory really hold true, when we look at the amount of female time spent, and number of views shared, on MumsNet, or fashion and food blogs and forums?

I’d be interested to see some more research in this area. It’s a theme that journalist Gaby Hinsliff picks up on in her introductory post for today’s International Women’s Day themed LabourList. Of political blogging, she says “there are too many women waiting to be invited to blog, where men just pile in”.

Perhaps there are some common factors at work here? Perhaps too its not just about the inclination to write but also about the at times very rude and abrupt behaviour that is taken as acceptable, either on blog comments or on newspaper letters pages. Does that have a disproportionate effect in terms of who it puts off?

All points to chew over.

9 responses to “Why do men dominate newspaper letters pages?”

  1. There is the problem that women are socialised to be quiet, sit still, and don’t make yourself conspicuous. I can’t say that it didn’t have much of an effect on me, because it did. It’s just that I was brought up to question authority (in all senses of the word question) and thus my instinctive reaction to being told to sit down and shut up is to stand on my tiptoes and shout louder.

    I am not a typical woman.

    None the less, there is the little voice in the back of my head which says “why are you bothering? Nobody is going to listen to YOU, and if they do listen, they’ll laugh. You’re not important enough for anyone to pay attention to…” etc. etc. I have learned to ignore it, and not care* if people laugh. I don’t think many other women have, and I don’t think that many men have that little voice, or if they do, they too have learned to ignore it.

    Men are brought up to believe that society values them and their opinions, that they matter, and that what they think is important. To an extent, they are right. Women are brought up to believe the opposite, and to an extent they are right too. But part of it is self-fulfilling prophecy. I HAVE to believe that, else why am I still banging my head against the brick wall of the kyriarchy?

    * for a given definition of not caring, anyway.

  2. Interesting questions, Mark. I think perhaps you are skipping over an essential first question here: Is there any point in writing to newspapers? Is it actually something we need to get exercised about that men dominate the letters pages? Are women actually missing out on anything other than ages spent penning letters which are rejected just to get the odd one printed and then used for fish and chips?

    I am finding it hard not to include the phrases “As a…..” or “As someone who…” which starts many letters to the papers. But as someone who (darn it) has had just short of a thousand letters published in newspapers I can honestly say that it is, in many respects, a complete waste of time, and often counter-productive to the cause the letter writer is trying to espouse.

    Bear in mind that for every letter published in the papers, there are about twenty which are rejected. So for that nearly thousand letters I’ve had published I had about the same number rejected. And then imagine all the time it took to write them. It was an obsession for me.

    I enjoy the process of writing and the ego-boost from seeing one’s name in print. But it tends to be a lot of testosterone-fueled gentitalia measurement.

    By the bye, my advice to anyone of whichever sex who wants to get letters published is the old one. Keep it short. One sentence only is best.

    I would also say, again in passing, that The Times is the hardest national publication in which to get a letter published (no cancel that – it’s the Daily Star because they haven’t got a letters page – or hadn’t when I last looked). The Independent is the easiest.

    And by the way, if you really want to observe a select band of really, really weird people they are the “wannabe letter writers” who are so crazy that they never get their letters published but instead send huge long letters to the people who have had their letters published. I have a collection of such screeds. One was about an inch thick of elaborately and meticulously prepared cuttings and rantings about Northern Ireland. It really was quite extraordinary – much of it was illegible because it was written in a minute spidery hand. It must have taken weeks to prepare.

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