The disparity, several experts told me, stems from “the confidence gap,” a phenomenon covered by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Atlantic in 2014. Women are less likely to think that they’re, one, skilled enough write something worthwhile, and, two, able to offer insight other people should care about, Joyce Ehrlinger, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State, said.
For a study she co-authored with Cornell psychologist David Dunning, Ehrlinger gave male and female college students a basic science quiz. Before students took the quiz, Ehrlinger and Dunning asked participants to rate their science ability and, after the quiz, to guess whether they’d gotten each question right. Responding to both questions, women assumed that their science ability was significantly worse than it really was. Men didn’t have that problem. There are hardly any subjects that women approach with more confidence than men, according to Ehrlinger. Cooking, she said, is one of only a handful of exceptions.
[Readers respond: Why Don’t Women Write to the Editor? Because They’re Doing Absolutely Everything Else]
By telling themselves they’re not experts in anything, “women are pulling themselves out of the discussion,” Catherine Orenstein, founder of The Op-Ed Project, an organization devoted to addressing the gender disparity in authorship of op-eds, said. “A lot of them will in some way discount themselves and their knowledge. If you think about it, what it means is that there’s a disconnect between what we know and our sense that it actually matters.” When she participated in a recent workshop sponsored by The Op-Ed Project, Ehrlinger said the coaches spent the majority of the time “convincing people that their perspective was worthy of sharing.”
Taking a science quiz in private is one thing, but writing a letter to the editor in a public forum is another. Writing in public is a particular challenge, Andrew Perrin, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studied the demographics of letters to the editor, said. “To read an article online, and decide that whoever else is reading this article ought to have my opinion—that takes a certain degree of self-importance,” Perrin said. Women, he said, are more likely to post an opinion on Facebook, where they have a connection to every person reading it—and where readers, by way of that connection, have more reason to care about their viewpoint.
Perrin distinguished between two different kinds of confidence: “my opinion is correct” and “I am entitled to be heard.” He explained, “In many cases, the confidence men have is not particularly warranted.” Of all the letters submitted to the Greensboro News and Record, a local newspaper in North Carolina, which Perrin reviewed for his study, 90 percent did not explicitly refer to an article published by the paper. “Lots of the letters in our data were literally incoherent,” Perrin told me. “Some of the letters addressed as many as 18 different topics.” Women, Perrin said, are probably even less likely to feel entitled to say something than to think their opinion is correct.