Why The OpEd Project?  
(An interview with Katie Orenstein)

Why did you start The OpEd Project?

The short answer is that the range of voices we hear from in the world is incredibly narrow – and comes from a tiny sliver of the world’s population: mostly western, white, older, privileged and overwhelmingly (85%) male.  Which means we’re hearing from only a small fraction of the world’s brains.  That’s a big problem for women and for all of us who aren’t being represented – our stories and ideas and perspectives are not being told (sometimes with life and death consequences).  But it also suggests a tremendous opportunity for everyone:  what would be the return to society if we could harness all that brain power? 
The vision of the project is that we would have a much smarter, richer, more interesting world if more people had a voice.  What if we could benefit from all the best ideas and brains out there?   To offer an analogy: if I were in the finance world, I might say that we have a portfolio called Public Knowledge, and we are surveying the landscape, looking for undiscovered assets for that portfolio  –   all the brains out there that we aren’t hearing from.   Women’s ideas are one of those undiscovered, or undercapitalized assets.   But there are other voices – under-represented or unheard voices and brains of all kinds – that we could and should invest in as well.

What sparked the idea?

The longer more specific answer to why I started the OEP is that there was a big debate a few years ago about why so few voices, and especially so few women, in thought leadership positions.  Larry Summers, then President of Harvard, gave a controversial speech about why are there so few women in higher math and science, and asked if there could be a question of ‘biological aptitude.’  Around the same time, a syndicated columnist named Susan Estrich accused the LA times of sexism, because they ran so few women on their op-ed page.  It started a big debate and media outlets everywhere weighed in: Is it due to sexism?  Biology?  Socialization?  With all the speculation, none of it solved the problem.   About that time, I became curious why no one was talking about a more obvious and more solvable part of the problem, which is that women don’t submit to front door forums – like op-ed pages or online commentary sites – with anywhere near the frequency that men do.  These forums feed all other media and drive thought leadership, so an absence of women (or other diverse voices) in these forums predicts under-representation on a much larger scale – on TV, in business, in congress, for example.    And I thought, why don’t we just get more smart women submitting to these gateway forums? 

That’s not rocket science.  It’s teachable.   What if this is just a numbers problem?  What would it take to increase the numbers from 15% -- our current share of voice, as women, whether you are looking at op-ed pages, corporate boards, TV pundits, or congress – to 30%, where most research says a tipping point occurs?   What if we could permanently solve the problem?

How did it go from an idea to an organization?

The idea is appealing because it is actually good for the world in expanding circles.  It’s good for women – both as individuals, and collectively – to be able to have a bigger voice.  It’s good for the organizations, institutions, and causes that these women work on and for – it gives those organizations and causes more visibility and power.  And it is good for society – because if we get to hear the best ideas from all the best and most interesting brains (not just the small fraction that currently has access to the world’s microphones) then we’ll have a richer, smarter, better public conversation.  Hearing from more voices also means there’s going to be more empathy, a better world.   Is that too corny?
Anyway, I didn’t immediately plan to start an organization.  I tried to get other people and organizations to do it.  But when they didn’t, eventually I began to think I should do it.  We had very dramatic results and huge buy-in very early on – including significant media coverage – and it was clear that we had touched a nerve and tapped a need.   The momentum was very fast, and before I knew it, we had an organization, albeit one that we have launched on a shoestring budget. 

It is an incredibly engaging experience, to be able to approach a problem with the idea of solving it – not improving it, not providing a service, but with the goal of creating an outcome.   For me, and for many other people who have joined our organization and community, I think that is an incredibly moving notion.