Easy Chair — From the June 2019 issue

Fifty-Fifty Follies

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Last spring, the BBC officially took up a “50:50 challenge” to achieve an equal number of male and female experts on news and current-events shows within the following year. We’re seeing an upsurge in the insistence that women must constitute half of everyone doing anything, since underrepresentation in any arena or sector is surely a sign of unconscious bias, misogyny, or institutionalized sexism begging for instantaneous redress. Over the past year, I myself have been approached more frequently to appear on BBC radio and television. Has the uptick in these invitations been occasioned by some great elevation of my public profile or some meteoric increase in my expertise? No. I have become a more valuable commodity for the Corporation because—­my first name notwithstanding—­I am female.

Hence the New York Times’ official lament earlier this year, following a lengthy letter of complaint, that, alas, the paper’s letters to the editor did indeed “skew heavily male.” In their reply, “We Hear You,” two editors explained that, while the Times tried to select letters for publication without regard to gender, only a quarter, at best a third, of submissions were from women, and this disparity translated to the page. The editors fervently solicited more letters from female readers, and asked for help understanding why we women are so shy with our opinions—­with an aim to reaching the “goal” of fifty-fifty representation in the letters section. Promising to report back by next February, the staffers were clearly hoping to achieve this parity, like the BBC, within a single year’s time.

“Goals” and “challenges” are airy, aspirational synonyms for “quotas”—and maybe it’s a small sign of progress that the quota has achieved a sufficiently negative connotation to require a euphemism. Moreover, the Times’ “goal” is an unusually pure illustration of the contrast between equality of opportunity and equality of results. For there is certainly no barrier to an infinite number of women clicking the cobalt-blue letters@nytimes.com on their screens, or to women availing themselves of the same postal address that so many more men have heretofore copied down.

We shall see whether the editors’ solicitation successfully summons an avalanche of correspondence from women bursting with suppressed convictions who’d only been waiting demurely on the sidelines for a specific invitation to express themselves. But in the event that the editors’ heartfelt appeal fails to redress the gender imbalance in submissions, should the unequal input nevertheless be manhandled (if we can still use that verb) into equal output? That is, should a stack of letters that are 25 percent from women still result in a letters page that is 50 percent female? Although this particular, narrow issue is of limited gravity, in an era obsessed with “diversity” of every sort, with fair representation often measured in strictly numerical terms, the broader issue—the engineering of equal output despite unequal input—is considerable.

Unless gender is germane to the subject matter, I rarely check the apparent sex of epistolarians in newspapers. I care only about what a reader has to say, and whether a letter is witty, observant, or dumb. I know I’m an outlier here, since we hear so frequently these days about the crucial contribution of women’s “voices,” but I do not regard my sex as a coherent constituency. Given our tremendous variation—men have no more a monopoly on aggression, belligerence, or turpitude than women do on kindness, empathy, or virtue—I don’t assume I’ve necessarily a great deal in common with roughly half of the human race, nor do I assume an absence of commonality with the other half. So if I hear four men speak on a panel, I don’t feel shut out, ignored, or insulted, and without listening first I won’t presume their discourse is irrelevant to my concerns. Such all-male forums aren’t apt to make me feel lectured to by some oppressive “other” or indignant that the unique perspective of my gender isn’t being aired. I only care if the panelists are witty, observant, or dumb.

Owing to the sad truth that caretaking of old and young alike still falls disproportionately to my sex, I can see how certain topics are somewhat more likely to be raised by women. Those Times editors note that women more often write in about “education, health, gender and children.” Yet many men also have an investment in access to legal abortion, for example, given that a single one-night stand could saddle them with child-support payments for eighteen years. Contraception, the schooling of one’s offspring, rape, and sexual harassment—these are men’s issues, too. So in scanning a letters page, I don’t get incensed if the selections “skew male” because “my” voice isn’t being heard. I am much more likely to get exasperated that the Times publishes such a paucity of letters or op-eds with a single positive word to say about Brexit. And I am as likely to disagree with people of my own sex as I am with men.

In fact, after subjecting myself to the hundreds of comments running after “We Hear You,” I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m more prone to disagree with other women. The experience was excruciating. Hoping to sample the full range of popular opinion in relation to gender-based affirmative action on the editorial page, I instead encountered a staggering uniformity in comments from women (and most of the comments appeared to be from women), in both content and tone. I’d expected a sizable contingent of the 726 comments to allow, “Actually, I’m not that bothered about who writes a letter, so long as it’s interesting.” But no.

Collectively, the female-authored comments churned into a maelstrom of resentment, fury, self-pity, grievance, paranoia, and old-hat, jargon-­strewn feminist cant. Scores of readers huffed on about having been crushed by the “patriarchy” (one of those helpful bywords for “I am unbearable”), leading them to expect their dazzling ideas to be met only with interruption, disdain, and neglect. Yet, to my especial surprise, many of these downtrodden damsels weren’t crusading millennial activists fresh from campus indoctrination camps but women in their sixties from my own generation. You’d think after all these years those chips on our shoulders would have eroded a bit from exposure to the elements, and instead they’ve grown roots deep into the deltoids and sprouted oak trees.

More than one female commenter took this opportunity to carp about having sent a letter to the Times on a subject about which she was supremely knowledgeable, and it wasn’t published: proof of the paper’s sexism. Others chose haughtily to regard the editors’ open-armed overture as yet another intolerable imposition on our long-suffering sex: “I don’t just want to see the onus placed on women (again) to right your ship, I want to see what you’re doing once you receive those letters that you’re requesting.” Or, “The ask now is that women unlearn the lessons of a lifetime and use their time and energy in order to fix this embarrassing problem for you, volunteering to become targets in the process.”

As for the female readership’s explanations for why fewer women than men write in, a generalized sampling: Women are too busy doing absolutely everything—­dragging the kids to school and making dinner and, by the by, holding down full-time jobs, thank you very much—while all the old, lazy white guys who make it into the paper have time on their hands. Girls have been raised to be cowed, timid, and self-­doubting, never feeling confident enough to raise their hands in school, while the boys have been taught to regard their every opinion, however unfounded, as wise, worthy, and wonderful. The requirement that letter writers supply an accurate name and hometown leaves women vulnerable to stalking, trolling, harassment, and rape threats. I admit I couldn’t quite torture myself through all 726 screeds. Yet, among the hundreds I did read, I failed to locate a single woman who objected to the prospect of the Times discriminating against male-authored letters in order to correct the imbalance. Rather, deliberate discrimination against men appears to be de rigueur. One commenter noted that “being ‘fair’ to men is not high on my priority list right now.”

It is highly probable that in order to be proactive about this fifty-fifty business Times staffers are now privileging letters from women, which would therefore have to clear a lower intellectual and stylistic bar. We can hope that the editors have a sufficient plethora of correspondence so that affirmative action in this instance doesn’t mean publishing letters that are outright boring, embarrassing, or thick. But theoretically, as in so many cases of diversity-­mongering, it’s the consumer who ultimately pays the price. At the very least, with a fifty-fifty quota system, the quality of the letters page is unlikely to go up.

Several abundantly male commenters observed that true fairness in the selection of letters for publication could easily be accomplished by removing the authors’ names and making judgments gender-blind. Correct. But this perfectly reasonable proposal misses the point. Especially if the sex ratio of submissions continues to skew male, blind assessment wouldn’t likely produce a fifty-fifty page. And this isn’t about fairness. It’s about the appearance of fairness.

What if, for whatever reasons, somewhat fewer women than men want to write letters to the editor? If so, why is that a problem? We don’t know, either, what proportion of the entire Times readership is female. If more men than women read the “paper of record,” is that also a problem? To right this terrible injustice, maybe we should force-feed more women Paul Krugman.

In any number of spheres, men and women are on average drawn to different things. Google’s James Damore was crucified for explaining that 80 percent of the company’s tech employees were men because women’s psychological temperament is less suited to the tech industry. Yet it is at least statistically true that more women get degrees in “people” subjects such as psychology, whereas men disproportionately earn degrees in “things” subjects like engineering. As Steven Pinker told the Evening Standard this spring,

Damore may have said it a little clumsily but it is largely supported by the data. How do you like to spend your time? What interests you? These are big in terms of life priorities and affect career choice. We should also remember that in sex differences there are overlapping statistical distributions and that a disparity between men and women in any occupation is not in itself proof of discrimination, although it’s often treated that way, as is the assumption that if discrimination were to evaporate, you’d have an exact 50/50 split in every profession, which is preposterous.

Just as the Times might optimally judge letters to the editor without names attached, assessing the C.V.s of job applicants with clues to gender removed (and race and ethnicity too, while we’re at it) is a far more equitable solution to bias than going halfsies on everything. Plugging in unequal input and churning out equal output is merely a formula for ­reversed unfairness.

An especially jarring example of the new insistence on fifty-fifty regardless of who likes to do what is the pressure for gender parity in my husband’s field, jazz and jazz education. The Berklee College of Music recently established an Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, whose website asserts confidently, “The jazz industry remains predominantly male due to a biased system.” But it is difficult to interpret the relative scarcity of female jazz instrumentalists (5 percent of the total as of 2016, according to the jazz musician and educator Issie Barratt) as solely or even primarily the result of institutional bias. In jazz, more women are attracted to vocal careers, and why is that a problem? Nevertheless, more than a hundred international music festivals have signed up to a “50:50 gender balance pledge” by 2022. Whatever their talents, the three female jazz instrumentalists studying at the Birmingham Conservatoire last year may have their pick of festival spots, while their sixty-seven male counterparts may be out of luck. Is this the new fairness? Certainly numerous brilliant female jazz musicians are rising stars. Yet with inputs this lopsided, for festivals and music schools to aim for perfect gender parity within a tight time frame is ludicrous.

This column’s argument is all admission against interest (though in the current social climate, only a woman can get away with making it). The rising obsession with gender parity across the board should be to my advantage. If I’m up for the anxiety and can spare the time, all those additional BBC solicitations are great opportunities. Likewise, the Times’ eagerness for more female contributors should improve the odds of my getting commissioned to write its op-eds—but only so long as the editors fancy my politics. That’s a big if.

Granted, most newspapers have agendas. But the New York Times is sui generis in American journalism. After all, those painfully posturing self-promotional slogans in full-page advertisements and big interruptive banners across articles on the app—“The truth is worth it”; “Holding the powerful to account”—shove the institution’s extraordinarily high opinion of itself down the reader’s throat. Yet to truly be America’s “paper of record,” this iconic periodical wouldn’t need more women in its letters section. What’s missing is political diversity. Why would it matter that more women get published in the opinion pages if every one of them is a cookie-cutter progressive Democrat?

Mind, I’ve been a loyal Times reader for forty-five years, and I’m still a subscriber. But most of my fellow readers would surely agree that, post-Trump, the paper’s political focus has narrowed, its reporting has grown drastically more slanted, and it has positioned itself palpably further to the left. The three tokenistic soft-conservative columnists, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Bret Stephens, are obliged to act as counterweights to the whole rest of the staff, like the three blind mice playing seesaw with Babar.

As for its letters page per se, overly male or not, the Times does a decent job of running missives that are thoughtful, cogent, and well expressed. But for the pinnacle of readership correspondence, check out the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, to which I subscribe specifically for its letters page—the highlight of my morning coffee. Sometimes impassioned, yes, and not always ideologically homogeneous either. But in contrast to the consistently earnest lay contributions in the New York Times and the Guardian, the Telegraph’s more strident post is always leavened with tips on making marmalade and letters that make me laugh. Now, that’s diversity.

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