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This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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2 September 2011 15:29


This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

This email from Olivia Kember deserves a response. My thoughts are below the fold:

I was very disappointed by your response to Jennifer Bennett. OK, her sarcasm was OTT, but you didn't rebut her arguments; you mainly attacked her style. And I think you repeated Rodger Shanahan's initial error — surely if you all agree 'the female perspective is under-appreciated' you go find some female views! If 'the only Interpreter writer to do something about it' was Rodger, perhaps your editorial team should do something more. After all, as one of Australia's leading foreign policy blogs you're extremely well-placed to encourage a greater diversity of opinion.

I'm sympathetic to Rodger's point that women may prefer 'more intimate modes of communication', if only because I agree with Susannah Patton's comments and I personally find dialogue more constructive than the solo microphone of an op-ed. But is it true? If so, would it help if the Interpreter's format were more conversational?

Is it false? Are other explanations more pertinent? Readers have suggested a lack of time by mid-career women; lower priority given to 'women's' security issues; male cronyism. Are there any ways in which the Lowy can address these? This is of course assuming that you think it's worth the effort to bring in more female opinions.

Anyway, thanks to a number of respondents you've now been presented with an exhaustive list of female commentators on security issues. I'd be interested in learning what you're going to do with it.

There are three issues here, which I will take in turn: (1) style and substance in blog debates; (2) comments policy; and (3) the level of female participation on The Interpreter.

Style and substance

Olivia is right. I did not rebut all the arguments in Jennifer Bennett's email, partly because I knew Rodger would prepare his own reply, and partly because, as I said in the piece, I thought Jennifer raised two important points. But I don't apologise for focusing on style, and I think Olivia draws too sharp a distinction between style and substance. In written debates, the two are intimately linked.

Note today's contribution from Rocchetta and Milligan, which strikes a firm but never strident tone. Some might mistake this for meekness or an unwillingness to risk confrontation, but what it's really about is a recognition that tone plays a large part in determining whether you actually convince anyone of your point of view.

Comments policy

I take it that Olivia's reference to a more conversational format on The Interpreter alludes to the fact that, unlike most blogs, we don't have open comment threads. There are various 'negative' reasons for this, but I actually think this debate showcases a strength of our approach, in which comments emailed to us are selected by our editorial team for publication on the site (a format, BTW, which I stole from Andrew Sullivan).

For the most part, the reader feedback we have received on this issue has been of outstanding quality, and I think it would have been a shame to see that material relegated to a comments-section ghetto. As it was, we featured those comments prominently as Reader Ripostes, and as a result I think the writer at centre of the debate, Rodger Shanahan, had much more incentive to respond to them. Had they been relegated to a comments thread, they would have been much easier to ignore.

Female participation on The Interpreter

My rough estimate is that only 5-10% of contributions to The Interpreter come from women. Olivia Kember asks what I am going to do about this. The obvious solution is to approach more qualified women and invite them to write.

The Interpreter is in the fortunate position of not having to solicit a great deal of content. Writers send stuff to us, and we work with them to make it publishable. There are slow periods where we go in search of material, and we are trying to find young writers in the Asia Pacific who can report on issues that get too little attention in Australia. But on the whole, we have enough quality supply of content to keep us busy. So, it's a supply-driven model, and overwhelmingly, the supply comes from men.

Yes, I'm always looking for new contributors, but generally these come via tips and introductions from colleagues and contacts. I almost never 'cold call' people to ask them to write for The Interpreter, partly because I don't have to, but also because it's not very productive. The best contributors are those who are motivated to write (we don't pay), and who know and like the site from having read it. So just sending a bunch of invites to female academics and commentators doesn't strike me as a promising strategy.

All that said, I'm open to ideas as to how we can attract more female contributors to the site. But equally, potential women contributors reading this don't need to wait to be asked. Pitch me your ideas on blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org .

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