Recently, the Nation’s public editor, Peter Mwaura, sought an explanation for why there is a dearth of female columnists in this newspaper and why the few there are tend to stay clear of topics such as politics or the economy and focus mainly on the so-called “pink” issues, such as fashion and relationships.
There has been some discussion on social media and elsewhere on why this might be the case.
Some people believe that female columnists stick to “soft topics” because they are too thin-skinned to handle the criticism that strong or controversial opinions generate. (I don’t necessarily buy this view because women have been at the receiving end of criticism for centuries, regardless of whether or not they are controversial or opinionated.)
The main reason why there aren’t more female columnists in the Kenyan print media is that editors have not done enough to look for or nurture these women.
And the reason women do not write about “hard topics” is because in the male-dominated newsrooms they are given few opportunities to do so.
Editors just assume that women are not interested in issues to do with politics, the economy, war, foreign policy and the like.
Male columnists are also taken more seriously than females. The BBC recently interviewed a man who discovered that when he used his female colleague’s name to communicate with clients, they tended to respond negatively to what he said, but when he used his real name, the response was generally favourable.
He concluded that it was not what was being said that mattered, but the sex of the person saying it.
In the 19th century, female authors who wrote under male pseudonyms were more likely to be published.
The writer Mary Anne Evans, more popularly known as George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters adopted male names because in those days publishers tended to reject female authors.
Even today it is hard for women to have their voices heard. Women with strong opinions are often viewed as being unbalanced or slightly mad.
Former President Daniel arap Moi, for instance, described the late vocal environmentalist, Prof Wangari Maathai, as a woman with “ants in her head”, who made too much noise.
When women are repeatedly told that what they say or believe is wrong or invalid, they begin doubting themselves. This could be one reason why there are so few female columnists.
I recently asked the CEO of a company what women could do differently to be taken seriously by their colleagues and superiors.
His answer surprised me. He told me that women must learn how to play the game like men do.
Men, he said, tend to respect hierarchy, and do not generally question their boss’s decisions.
They are also more likely than women to hang out with their male boss after work, a bonding ritual that helps them rise up the career ladder.
In other words, men thrive in the workplace through conformity.
Women who do not conform or who do not socialise with their bosses (because they have to rush home to take of their families) are viewed as “difficult” and a threat to the status quo. Their views are thus often dismissed, ignored or ridiculed.
Women who question why a project is being run in a certain way or who point out work-related malpractices find themselves out in the cold, shunned by both their peers and their superiors.
This is why the woman who smiles at and makes small talk with the boss, but does little work, is given a five-year contract while the one slogging quietly in the corner has to beg for a six-month extension.
In some cases, female bosses obstruct the career paths of the women below them, either because they feel threatened by them or because they have internalised the misogyny of their male peers.
Women who aspire to be columnists must also keep in mind that column-writing is not as simple as it might appear.
It is a skill, like any other, than needs to be honed. To craft a convincing argument you must know your subject well. Columnists can never miss a deadline even when they are having a “bad hair day”.
Putting yourself out there, week after week, year after year, can also be taxing and emotionally draining. But column-writing can also be immensely satisfying, which is why I continue doing it.