COMMENTARY: A year’s lessons

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.


When we started this project, we had a fairly simple question to ask: To what extent are women both represented and participating in print and online media?

After a year, we’ve managed to come up with a few answers, but mostly just a much longer and complex list of questions that we don’t have answers to.

Yes, we can look at the frankly dismal number of bylines and sources from the New Media Index and our own monitoring projects (less than 20% overall, and only a little better in findings from the Gender Check project). For two women passionate about producing media, it just reinforces the status quo we’ve both experienced in our professional lives.

But I think our findings are more disappointing as two women who are passionate consumers of, and advocates for, good journalism. Sitting next to each other in our first college level journalism course, one of the first lessons we learned was about balanced sources. Luckily, we had a professor that valued balance not just as a way of using token sources from opposing sides of an argument, but also that a story should reflect the culture and society it covers. So for a country that’s 51 percent women, why are we still being used as the token “female” source in a story with double, or sometimes triple, the male sources?

One of the answers we have is that we need more women in journalism as both reporters and editors. Newsrooms that reflect the population may be more apt to cover its needs and voices. Some studies suggest women may be more attune to including alternate voices, such as more female sources, in their stories, depending on newsroom culture and training.In our studies, we found that articles by female authors contained 4 to 28 percent more female sources than articles by males, though more research is needed.

However, in order to get more women as expert sources, we also need more women in positions to be experts in their fields. This is especially true in politics. This was demonstrated in our look at the representation of women by article subject, as stories on politics and government had the lowest percentage of female sources. This is not particularly surprising given that women currently hold 16.6 percent of the 535 seats in Congress and 23.5 percent of the seats in state legislatures. There are 6 female governors; of the 100 big-city mayors, 8 are women. So the likelihood that a female will be on the random call sheet for a political officer’s opinion is much lower to begin with, let alone when considering the added stigma these women still face about their authority in some political circles and, consciously or not, in the eyes of some journalists. Similar gaps exist in the sciences and business worlds.

But the goal of our work is not to say women need to be treated with some sort of quota system. In fact, it is the opposite. Until we have more female congresswomen or CEOs or researchers or even journalists, the women we do see used are often used as the “token” female opinion, and her comments are seen as representative of her gender, rather than her position. As we move into a presidential election season, we fear this trend will only escalate, as politicians try to court female votes or cater to “women’s issues,” as if men aren’t stakeholders in education, family planning or health care.

We hope this next year not only improves the quantitative measures of gender in the media, but also the qualitative attitude shift towards more balanced discussions that see all participants as individuals with important things to say.

Whether that hope becomes a reality or not, it is our goal to continue to seek the answers to our original question. In doing so, our intent is to draw attention to these issues in meaningful ways and gain a greater understanding of the representations of women and gender in the media. Up next, we’ll share our plans for our second year here at The Gender Report.

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