The continuing controversy over an offensive op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which denigrated the accomplishments and standing of Dr. Jill Biden, is the latest evidence that gender bias remains alive and well in major media institutions.
The editorial leadership at major papers (especially the op-ed pages themselves) needs reform. It’s hard to understand how or why the Wall Street Journal would not only publish Joseph Epstein's overtly sexist piece, but also defend it.
The backlash the publication has received, including from Former First Lady Michelle Obama, incoming White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and thousands of outraged women with doctorate degrees (among many others) should give the Wall Street Journal —and all major papers — cause to reassess the diversity of their editorial leadership and also their publication process and standards.
At a time when a woman has been elected vice president, the entire leadership of the White House Press office is held by women and women are leading in every field and discipline, it’s high time that major papers work harder to root out sexist content and, importantly, set and publish targets for diversity of authorship in the op-ed pages.
In announcing the appointments of the historic and diverse female communications staff, Joe Biden's advisor, Anita Dunn said, “the all-female team will instantly disrupt how journalists cover the administration at a time when men’s views still typically dominate political and government coverage.”
The WSJ op-ed is a perfect example of how right Dunn is. Men like Epstein enjoy wide access and opportunities to dominate political and government coverage in ways women and people of color still struggle to have, a reality that has had far reaching consequences in our national psyche and political life.
Even when their writing is lambasted, the white male editors who publish them continue to defend. Readers should be asking, "how many op-eds by women or people of color were rejected by the WSJ to make space for Epstein?" We’ll never know because at the moment, none of the major papers make public any information about the opinion submissions they get or publish. They should.
No major paper publishes data on the numbers of women or people of color who are featured in opinion pages – though data on the diversity of newsrooms and newspaper leadership is available (headline – not good news there – newsrooms and institutions like the Wall Street Journal remain overwhelmingly white and male. That lack of diversity leads to selection and content bias. Transparency and pressure on news institutions has led many papers to promote more women and people of color into editorial leadership. Still, more must be done on that front and now it’s time to also ensure transparency and diversity in the opinion pages as well.
Newspaper opinion pages are notoriously difficult to penetrate. They play an outsized role in shaping the perspectives and opinions of policymakers and influencers across many spheres of power, which is precisely why a well-placed op-ed in a major paper is so sought after.
The submission review process is opaque. Writers rarely receive feedback on why a piece was rejected. Obviously, the exclusivity is part of what gives these institutions their allure. But this opaque and arcane process also leaves out critical voices and perspectives that deserve to be heard while echoing the views of a privileged few whose voices are already heavily amplified. That Epstein’s piece was ever published only reinforces how broken the op-ed editorial review and publication process is.
A few simple steps are needed to ensure influential papers are doing their utmost to ensure diversity in leadership and diversity of authorship and perspective in the opinion pages.
First, they can more transparently publish guidelines on op-ed writing standards and put out regular public calls for new writers.
Second, they can include a simple demographic questionnaire with each submission. This would enable the tracking of submissions relative to what is published. And they could yes, set targets of 50 percent women and 50 percent people of color for the op-ed page and in the editorial leadership.
By making this data transparent and setting goals for diversity, editors are forced to expand their vision – to work with promising opinion writers whose work might not fit the typical mold but, with some coaching from a great editor, could bring much needed diversity or perspective to the readers who crave it.
Does that mean editors must lower the bar in order to hit set numbers? Nope. (Clearly the bar for writers like Epstein is already low.) It means they must try harder to root out bias in opinion, read with a more open mind and, in the process, open the aperture to the see work of people they might otherwise overlook. Readers deserve at least that much.
Lauren Leader is Co-Founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-profit non-partisan women’s civic education organization and the author of "Crossing the Thinnest Line, How Embracing Diversity from the Office to the Oscars Makes America Stronger." She tweets @laurenleaderAIT