Anna North has a piece in Salon about why journalism's elite corps is still overwhelmingly dominated by men, and her theory (or one theory, among others) is that famous male journalists get that way by stoking controversy, which is much more dangerous for women to do.
But there's another thing you need to do to become the next Andrew Sullivan: stoke controversy. The most successful branded journalists stake out provocative claims frequently and aggressively, without worrying too much about whether they'll eventually be proved wrong. And this is much riskier for women than it is for men.All of that, yes. Although I will note that even women whose only "controversial" position is being a woman are targeted by violent misogynists, too.
There's no question that men who take controversial positions in the media come in for loud and vigorous criticism. Women who do so, however, can expect rape threats. They can expect to be told that they are too fat or ugly to have a valid opinion on anything. They can expect the suggestion that instead of speaking, they might prefer to fellate their male readers. If they are nonwhite, they can expect other, racialized forms of abuse.
So while controversy can be a rough-and-tumble game for some male commentators, for women it's a decision to put their mental health — and sometimes their physical safety — on the line. For a female journalist, doing careful, reasoned work that raises interesting questions — and waiting till you have everything ironclad before you publish anything — can be a lot safer than taking strong, brash stands right out of the gate. Women who do this may not be able to avoid harassment entirely, but they're more likely to escape the worst of it.
...It's easy to say that the solution to this is simply for women to step up, to marshal that bravery and charge into the space dominated by men, consequences be damned. I would love to see more women do this. But I also know it is not necessarily a rational choice. Nearly everything in society is set up to reward women who are conciliatory and punish women who are not. Nice women may not get their own editorial operations at ESPN, but they are more likely to get the approval of their peers. Confrontational women get pictures of their beaten-up faces posted on the Internet.
Which brings me to the observation that being a female writer who is routinely threatened, and who is routinely told that she is too fat and ugly to have a valid opinion, creates additional concerns for people in editorial positions when they're considering whom to hire.
If I'm known as a writer who comes with the baggage of determined silencers who lob rape threats at me every time I publish something, editors for online spaces will weigh whatever cachet I bring to their publication against whatever fuckery I bring to their comments section.
Any halfway competent editor for any publication which tries to maintain even the most cursory appearance of "civil debate" knows that hiring a "controversial" female writer who's incessantly targeted by violent misogyny will necessitate additional moderating resources. And many of them will end up calculating it's just easier to hire a dude.
I publish a high volume of content every day; I do not hesitate to take "strong, brash stands" on controversial subjects; I am not intimidated by the "rough-and-tumble" of it all; I'm not afraid to put myself out there, and be confrontational, and risk not being seen as "nice." But I can be the kind of writer who gets premiere commentary jobs all day every day for the rest of my life, and it's not going to make a damn bit of difference if there aren't editors who are willing to invest in me because I'm the target of harassment.
The truth is, there are plenty of female writers with the stomach for it. I'm just not sure the same can be said about editorial decision-makers who prefer to crown kings.