Five years ago, a freelance journalist named Adrienne LaFrance decided to figure out the gender breakdown of the people she was quoting. With help from an MIT researcher, LaFrance analyzed the articles she had written over the previous year, spanning many subjects, in a variety of big-name publications.
“I expected we’d find that I quote more men than women, but I also secretly hoped the gender representation in my work would be more balanced than most,” she later wrote. “I make an effort to find women sources. I’m a feminist! Surely that would show over the course of a year.” Yet it didn’t. About 25 percent of the people she mentioned were women, very similar to the overall share in the media, according to other studies.
But if LaFrance’s project was disappointing, it was also ahead of its time. Over the past five years, the shortage of women’s voices in the media – and at public events – has started to get more attention.
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Ed Yong of The Atlantic (where LaFrance now works) wrote a widely read piece this year about his own efforts to quote more women. In several fields – foreign policy, political science, neuroscience – women have banded together to create lists of female experts. On Monday, the Brookings Institution is launching a well-organized database of female technology experts.
Meanwhile, hundreds of men in various fields have signed an online petition vowing not to appear on all-male panels. The website Gender Avenger keeps statistics on panels and television appearances. And a brutally funny Tumblr, called “Congrats, you have an all male panel,” publishes photographs of such “manels.”
Before I tell you about my own version of LaFrance’s project, I want to address the skepticism that some people feel about these efforts. It goes roughly like this: The problem isn’t journalism or panels, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Many fields remain dominated by men. Of course their voices are more prominent. Let’s work on the pipeline, not some kind of quotation quota.
It’s not a completely crazy argument. Journalists and conference organizers aren’t going to solve gender imbalance. The pipeline – making sure both men and women have ample opportunities to serve in government, run organizations and become distinguished experts – is indeed more important than anything else.
But journalists and other gatekeepers are letting themselves off too easily if they don’t admit their own role in the pipeline problem.
Think of it this way: There is abundant evidence of sexism in our society. Women pay huge career penalties for having children. Women are more likely to be interrupted. They are more likely to endure hateful attacks on social media. Some research has found that women are less likely to be hired than similarly qualified men. Other research has found that women are more likely to be called “bossy” and men more likely to be called “brilliant.” When men and women collaborate on a project, the men often receive more public acclaim, like having their names mentioned first. The list goes on and on.
“It’s not that the cream has risen to the top and the cream is 100 percent male or 80 percent male,” Susan Hennessey, a national-security expert who organized the Brookings list, told me. “We’re failing to capture talent that exists.”
All of which means that journalists aren’t being neutral if they just go about their business and pretend to ignore gender. They are allowing sexism to help dictate their sources – and are perpetuating the problem. The people who get quoted today, after all, are more likely to be invited onto a panel tomorrow and offered a sweet new job next year.
I have long felt a little lousy about the gender mix in my own work. But I’ve made the usual excuses to myself: Many of the subjects I cover, like politics and economics, are dominated by men.
When I began writing a daily email newsletter in 2016, however, I decided to try something new. The newsletter includes a few paragraphs that I write about the news, as well as some reading suggestions from around the web. And I made a simple rule: No newsletter can cite the work of only one gender. Every newsletter has to be coed.
The rule has changed my work.
Without it, I would too often rely on familiar voices, most of which are male. Because of the rule, I have gone looking for a wider variety of experts. That’s not merely a matter of fairness. It broadens my worldview and improves my journalism.
In recent months, more than 40 percent of the writers mentioned in the newsletter have been women. By comparison, less than 20 percent of the people mentioned in my weekly column have been women. The gap between the two is a pretty good demonstration of the difference between vaguely wanting to get better at something and having a plan to do so. As LaFrance said to me, about her own work: “Caring is not enough. You have to figure out how to do something about it.”
My mix is obviously still too male-heavy, so I’m now taking some new steps. With help from those lists of female experts and other resources, I have created all-female Twitter feeds in several fields – economics, politics, national security and so on. The feeds are publicly available. I hope that other people will create more such lists – for other subjects, as well as for nonwhite voices – and that readers will tell me who’s missing from my lists.
Reading the feeds is a fascinating experience. At first, the idea of building all-female lists, as opposed to truly coed lists, made me a bit uncomfortable. But then I realized something: If a discussion of, say, economics or politics that’s dominated by one gender seems a little strange to you, then you should feel deeply uncomfortable with the actual public dialogue on those subjects. Once you start paying attention, you can’t help but notice how shockingly male it is.
Until we’ve made more progress fixing that problem, it’s worth setting aside some time to listen to only women.