Finding ways for women (myself included) to contribute more to public discourse

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

For years, people have blamed newspapers for not featuring enough women in the opinion section. It turns out, though, that the problem isn’t so much that news organizations aren’t featuring women in their opinion sections; it’s that women aren’t contributing in the first place.

I talked about this issue with Catherine Orenstein of The Op-Ed Project, as well as The New York Times’ Gail Collins, who said that “women don’t put their hands up as often as men.” The Op-Ed Project — which is designed to enrich public conversation by expanding the range of voices we hear, and especially by increasing the number of women who participate — runs a national mentoring program to help women realize their expertise and contribute to the public discourse. In working with women as part of this mentoring program, Orenstein said she’s found that women give countless reasons for not contributing more opinion pieces.

I’m not an expert in anything. You should really ask another person. I don’t want to be pretentious or snotty. I don’t have a Ph.D. …

I can relate to these statements. It has always been difficult for me to speak up in public settings. And when I’m nervous, I literally don’t speak up enough. A colleague once told me I sometimes talk so quiet he can hardly hear me. I often tell myself that I’m not smart enough to contribute, or that I don’t have anything of value to say. I know this isn’t really true, but a lack of self confidence stifles my ability to share my opinions. I’ve sat in countless meetings in which I’ve thought so much about how I’ll speak up that I’ve scared myself out of actually talking.

So I’m working on strengthening my voice. During my last review at work, I was asked to start attending more meetings at work. Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to contribute more, and I’ve succeeded. Because I work with incredibly talented and smart people, I sometimes feel inadequate in comparison. But I realize that what I say has value and that my voice is worth being heard, just as much as everyone else’s in the meeting. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

People at work have told me in recent months that they appreciate how much more I’ve been speaking up, and that means a lot. I’ve recognized it, too. Last week I spoke (virtually) to a journalism class at Kent State University about how journalists are using social media to connect with their audiences, and I felt so much more confident than I normally do. I think I felt confident in part because I know a lot about this topic. When I’m talking about an issue I’m passionate about or that I’ve written about, I feel much more comfortable contributing to the discussion. Having an agenda that I can look at before a meeting also helps because I can think about what I want to say ahead of time.

It’s nice to know I’m not the only woman who has trouble speaking up, but it’s unsettling to know that so many women have difficulty with this. It’s my hope that someday, more of us will realize our voices are worth being heard — not just for our own sake but for society’s sake. The public discourse is enriched when it’s filled with a diversity of voices and perspectives.

As Orenstein told me: “We’re getting only a tiny fraction of the world’s knowledge and the best ideas. There’s a huge black hole of ignorance. There’s nothing wrong with the people who have the world’s microphone … but the rest of us need to have a bigger voice.”

Here are my three related stories on this topic:

Why women don’t contribute to opinion pages & what we can do about it

Collins: ‘Women don’t put their hands up as often as men’ in opinion pages

New York Times’ Kristof: To get social issues on the agenda, get them on the op-ed pages