Like many other women I know, I have been profoundly affected by Brittany Higgins’ testimony of rape in the heart of government, and the 5000 accounts of trusting former students from mostly private girls schools in Sydney whose first sexual experiences were neither loving nor fun, but forced and dehumanising. There are pages and pages of these disclosures, a tsunami of sexual assault.
But as searing as these stories are, they are also empowering and long overdue and a reminder of the strength of a woman’s voice when she roars, to quote Helen Reddy, especially in numbers too big to ignore. As a nation, we need that surge of women’s voices, but not just on sexual assault – on every other issue worthy of public discussion as well – yet in our opinion submissions inbox women are often missing in action.
It’s hard to know exactly why women are under-represented among those who submit to us. No doubt our own policies and practices have contributed – an opinion page with pieces written overwhelmingly by men, day after day, sends a clear message.
We’ve been consciously trying to change that and seek out women when we are commissioning and selecting pieces. Publishing a page of only male voices would be easy most days. It’s much harder the other way around. That is why today, on International Women’s Day, we’ve chosen to publish only women’s opinions on the news of the day.
In the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia’s 2019 Women for Media Report,the Herald online was in the middle of pack when it came to major news sites giving space to women’s opinion. Yet the report still found that 70 per cent of our columnists and contributors were men. We’re aiming for 50 per cent in print, which should flow online. And to have more women writing on issues across the spectrum, not just on softer topics.
To some extent we are hostage to the under-representation of women in positions of power – if we are seeking opinions of the leaders of organisations and professions, but those groups are not promoting women to the top, that skews the gender balance on the page.
There does seem to be less enthusiasm as well from women to subject themselves to the potentially unrewarding experience of offering an opinion piece only to have it rejected – as the vast majority are. Yet men are eager to give it a go. Maybe the studies that show women are still doing the majority of chores and child-minding duties is a clue – they just have less time. Or maybe they are out there making change, not writing about it. Or wary of being savaged in this unforgiving political atmosphere. We get it. But as the last few weeks have shown, the cost of silence can also be high. So to women everywhere I say: pitch, write, and repeat. We want to hear you roar.
Julie Lewis is the opinion editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.