May 10, 2019


Fifty-Fifty Follies (Lionel Shriver, May 2019, Harper's)

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 on their screens, or to women availing themselves of the same postal address that so many more men have heretofore copied down.

Posted by at May 10, 2019 11:57 AM