One year: Examining the prominence of female sources in Gender Check study

Editor’s note: In January 2011, we set out to examine the ways in which women are represented in online news both as sources and as authors. To mark our first year here at The Gender Report, we’re revealing our findings from our year-long studies as well as other statistics and commentaries in a series of posts. View other coverage of our one-year anniversary here.


As we unveiled earlier this week, women made up 26 percent of human sources referenced in the articles we monitored as part of our Gender Check project. This percentage gives us a general idea of representation of women’s voices in the news, but it does not reveal how prominently these voices were incorporated. We’ve explored our data a little more indepthly so that we can address this issue and questions such as this: Was the first source in a story – a position of more weight in some respects — even more likely to male than female?

We looked at this after the six-month mark of our study, and found were at least some small signs of a lack of prominence of women sources in the online news articles we monitored. After a year, we find similar evidence.

In our year-long study, we had examined 354 articles from eight U.S. online news websites (for more details on the study, click here). Thirty-one of the articles contained no human sources. Less than 10 percent of articles had nine or more sources. The most sources a story had, as was true at the six-month point, was 25 — an article in June from ProPublica about the criminal justice process in murder cases involving children.

Roughly 15.5 percent, or 55 articles, were single-source stories. That source was male in 35 of the articles, female in 18 and unidentified in two. That made women 32.7 percent of sources in single-source stories.

The number of female sources only exceeded that of male sources twice: when we were down to two articles at source No. 21 and down to one article at source No. 25. Female sources only exceeded one-third at two other times – source No. 16 (five articles) and source No. 22 (two articles). This has remained consistent since since the six-month mark.

The first source of the articles in our sample was female 23.5 percent of the time, but the percentage of sources that were female jumped 5 or 6 percentage points for the second and third sources and then dropped back down to 21.2 percent for the fourth source.

Here’s what we found for the first five sources in a story as well as the last source in the articles.

  • First source: 23.5 percent female (in 323 articles)
  • Second source: 29.5 percent female (in 268 articles)
  • Third source: 28.3 percent female (in 205 articles)
  • Fourth source: 21.2 percent female (in 151 articles)
  • Fifth source: 25.9 percent female (in 108 articles)
  • Last source: 29 percent female (in 269 articles – not including single source stories)

In addition to the order of sources, we also examined the number of expert and non-expert sources of both genders. An expert source is an official or public figure, a person in position of authority or someone with significant knowledge on the subject.

In the articles we monitored, a larger portion of the female sources referenced in were non-experts compared to male sources. Non-experts made up 29.2 percent of female sources but just 14.1 percent of male sources. Overall, 17.9 percent of sources were non-experts.

These findings in particular raise more questions for us. Does this reflect a lack of female experts as a whole or is something different at work? Share your thoughts in the comment section below or using the #GRdiscuss hashtag on Twitter.

For more results from our year-long Gender Check project revealed this week, review the links below:

For more information on gender representations in online news, check out our “Findings and Statistics” and “Useful Resources” pages.

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