Monday, 30 June 2008

"Women Have Better Things To Do"

Thanks to eagle-eyed Times-watcher Dave, who noticed on Saturday that the aforementioned Times had an article on what sort of people write into the paper.

From it we learn that the Times receives around 600 letters a day, of which about 18 get selected for publication. We also learn that at least one Times reader has taken it upon himself to conduct an informal study of the gender breakdown of those whose letters are published:

Duncan Grey writes from Cambridge: "I've just taken a quick count of male to female contributors to the letters page over the past few weeks. My calculations show that 83 per cent of writers are men, 11 per cent are women and some 6 per cent are either joint writers or of uncertain gender. Who is responsible for this? Gender-biased editors, domineering husbands or some other factor? Could it be that The Times does not appeal to women, or that women prefer to tend to kittens and cooking while their menfolk pore over the paper?"

The reporter, Sally Baker, responds thus:

The published ratio broadly mirrors that of letters received, although the other reason in my view is that women have better things to do with their time than write letters to newspapers.

I'm pleased to see that Duncan received a proper response to his letter to the Times, whereas I didn't to my very similar letter to the Guardian.

But I'm not so pleased to see the return of our old friend 'women have better things to do' as the supposed reason for women's reluctance to write to the papers. In my experience, 'women have better things to do' is a false compliment. It almost suggests that women should 'know their place'.

And no prizes for guessing what that 'place' is, either. Independent columnist Mary Dejevsky, remember, reckoned that women had better things to do with their time than write blogs. Those 'better things' turned out to be cooking dinner for their husbands and looking after the kids.

If by any chance Sally Baker is reading this, I would very much like to know what those 'better things' are that she believes women spend their time doing. If it's staying out of the public sphere and keeping quiet about things that matter, I'm not sure I'd agree.

In the meantime, you can amuse yourself by going to Google and looking up 'women have better things to do than' and 'women have better things to do with their time than'. Playing chess, playing computer games, making money, writing a diary, being included in the history books, discussing obscure records - all these and many more things are beneath us, apparently.

Monday, 23 June 2008

The Guardian Responds!

Well, not a response as such, but at least an acknowledgement. This blog was featured in the 'Internet' section of Saturday's Guardian Guide, in the 'What we learned on the web this week' column. It says:

'More men write into the Guardian than women. A lot more.' tinyurl46usfy

But is that *really* the case, or is the large discrepancy between genders on the letters pages due to another of the possible reasons listed at the end of this post? I still don't know.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Nothing To See Here

Hello all, just a note to say that I'm declaring this blog dormant until such time as I receive a reply from either or both of the letters editors to my email below.

I'll alert you to any updates on the other blog, so no need to keep checking in here. Alternatively, you may like to subscribe to this blog's RSS feed in a feed reader of your choice, so you can see when it's been updated.

Many thanks to you all for all of your contributions and suggestions and words of encouragement!

UPDATE: Unless, of course, any of you feel like writing to the letters editors which case the emails are letters at and letters at

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Silence Of The Letters Editors

No reply yet from either Letters Editor, and Statcounter says they haven't been in to look here either. But the email only went off on Sunday, so it's early days. In the meantime, here's what I sent:

Dear Guardian and Observer letters editors,

I wonder if you could help shed light on something for me. I've just completed a month-long study of the gender split between the writers of letters published in the Guardian and the Observer, and I've been recording the results in a blog here.

My original aim was to question whether the letters pages of both newspapers reflected the actual gender split in the papers' readerships. This was specifically in order to query a point that Nigel Willmott made in a Guardian article in March about the editorially-controlled letters page providing a more useful service to readers than the free-for-all of online commenting.

The results suggest that the letters pages in no way reflect the actual readership – there are far more published letters from men than from women in both papers - but I am wondering why this is so. Is it the case that far fewer women write letters to the editor? Do you think it's because you tend to publish letters from public figures, and public figures tend to be men? I'm afraid I started off with the assumption that it was all down to (conscious or subconscious) sexism, but my readers and I have since come up with a number of theories, which are listed at the end of this post.

I'd be very interested to hear your views on the subject, and if you could give me some idea of the gender split in the correspondence your papers receive, I'd be really very grateful. I also hope you won’t mind me publishing your replies – along with this email – on the blog in question.

Many thanks in advance,

Patroclus [only signed with my real name, obviously]

I will, of course, keep you fully informed of any developments.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

The Grand Totals

Here are the grand totals for both newspapers for the period 17th April - 16th May 2008. See the two posts below for the individual results for the Guardian and the Observer.

First, the gender split in raw numbers:

And then in percentages:

I'm not sure what I've proved, other than that there *is* a fairly major discrepancy in the way each gender is represented on the letters page of the Guardian and the Observer.

In that sense, the hunch that I had at the beginning was correct (incidentally, I thought that this would make me feel triumphant: as it turns out, it just makes me feel a bit deflated and depressed). But I'm still no nearer to knowing why, or whether that discrepancy is the result of sexism (conscious or subconscious) or simply due to the fact that fewer women write in to the papers in question.

For those of you who are wondering why I still haven't just emailed the letters editors to ask what proportion of letter-writers are female and what proportion male, the answer is I'm hesitating to do so because I know I won't get a statistically correct answer but rather one based on gut feelings, and gut feelings tend towards over- and under-estimation. I'll send off my emails today though, and see what comes back. If nothing else, it might eliminate some of the theories put forward here.

The Final Reckoning: The Observer

I only have four weeks of data for the Observer, so these figures are less telling than those of the Guardian. But nevertheless, here we are.

A reminder of the actual gender split in the Observer readership (note it's slightly more even than that of the Guardian):

Here's how each gender was represented on the letters page over a four-week period:

And expressed as a percentage so you can compare with the first chart:

At 67:29, it's a better showing than the Guardian (73:23), but it's still way off the actual readership split.

The Final Reckoning: The Guardian

Sorry to anyone who's been coming in looking for THE FINAL RECKONING: I was overtaken by a load of work last week. Here we go, though - I'll do the Guardian first, then the Observer, then the GRAND TOTALS.

First up, a reminder of what the actual gender split of the Guardian readership looks like:

Now let's look at how many letters published on the Guardian letters page between 17th April and 16th May 2008 were written by men, and how many by women:

And expressed as percentages:

Now, I would say that even taking into account possible margins of error (I had a comment a few posts back from a woman called Jamie - but if I'd seen her in the Guardian I would have automatically counted her as a man), there is a lot of discrepancy between the gender split of the Guardian readership and the gender split of Guardian letter-writers who have their letters published.

This doesn't of course, automatically mean that the Guardian letters editor is biased against female correspondents. There are several possible reasons for the discrepancy. Here they are again:

1. Fewer women write letters to the editor in the first place.
This one seems the most likely (especially as the letters editor of the Times Higher Educational supplement said in January that 95%* of the letters written to the publication are by men), but it does open up the field for a load of sub-theories about why this should be the case.

2. Women do write letters to the editor, but only on a narrow range of topics.
These tend to be traditionally 'female' topics like domestic violence, abortion, anorexia and equal rights in the workplace.

3. Women do write letters to the editor, but are less likely to be selected for publication.
Precedence is granted to letters from public figures, who tend to be men. In the absence of a letter from a public figure, precedence is automatically granted to male correspondents because they are - consciously or subconsciously - assumed by the (male) letters editor to have more authority or higher social status.

4. Women do write letters to the editor on a broad range of topics, but are more likely to be selected for publication when they're writing about 'female' issues.
Women are seen to be authorities on typically female topics, but not on topics of more general interest (unless the letter-writer is also a public figure or a senior academic working in the subject area).

**NEW!** 5. Very few women write letters to the editor, but proportionately more of them get their letters published.
The Guardian letters editor, being (we assume) a liberal, left-leaning sort of individual, feels he must represent the views of female readers on the letters page, despite the fact that very few women actually write in. Therefore, he chooses a disproportionately large number of female-authored letters for publication in an attempt to provide at least some sort of balance.

Hopefully before long I'll have an answer to all this.