Swedish data scientist Max Berggren created a tool to monitor gender inequality in the news, and he’s added Motherboard to the list.
Percent of women featured in US media sources over the past week. Image: Gender Equality Tracker (US)
Swedish data scientist Max Berggren is doing the same for media outlets around the world with his Gender Equality Tracker, produced by company Prognosis. The tool counts gendered names and pronouns to track the proportion of women featured across different news sources.
Berggren, who works for Swedish media group Bonnier, said he was motivated to build the tool after visiting film database IMDb and noticing the gender divide in a list of top lead roles. "There were like 75 percent males in the lead roles," he said.
He wanted to look at the same phenomenon across the media, and started by coding a bot to track this across Swedish news outlets before expanding to other countries too.
"Obviously I'm male, so I enjoy all the privileges of the existing power structures, so it's kind of hard to see the world around you," Berggren said. "I just wanted to understand and know how the representation was in Swedish news media and the international news media."
After seeing our stats, Berggren got in touch to ask if we'd like him to track the gender balance in Motherboard stories. You can now see how we shape up against other media outlets over each 24-hour period on the Prognosis site or on Twitter.
Berggren's tool works by scouring new published texts for names, pronouns, and other gendered words like "brother" or "sister." Names aren't a perfect proxy for gender, but the tracker only counts one if official statistics show it is used by one gender 95 percent of the time or more (so a gender-neutral name would not be included in the analysis).
Over time, Berggren said he had noticed some obvious trends. "The sports sections are very heavily male-dominated, and corporate news is also very male-dominated," he said.
"Tech is of course also very heavily male-dominated," he added, noting that a couple tech outlets he tracks with the Swedish version of the bot often show around 15 percent female representation. The most recent results show tech site "Breakit" and "Digital" closer to 10 percent.
Over the weekend, Motherboard actually topped the US board a few times with a 40 percent and 48 percent score for mentions of women—much better than the 19 percent we counted over a weeklong period earlier this year. However, given we were specifically focusing on stories about women and gender issues during our themed week, this is unlikely to be representative of our usual coverage.
There are some shortcomings to Berggren's approach. When we counted our gender representation by hand, we could check a person's gender if we were unsure, but the code is less accurate in this respect. As previously mentioned, it also doesn't count names that are not clearly male or female, which may skew results a bit, and it also only includes names that are in official statistics. This means people with less common names in the respective country may not be counted—something Berggren noted may disproportionately affect representatives from minority groups. The tool is also incapable of tracking non-binary genders.
And of course, numbers aren't everything; these stats don't give information on how women are portrayed. Berggren said that, particularly in the UK, tabloids such as the Daily Mail score highly on his scanner—but though they may present over 50 percent of their sources as women, these are often in very stereotypical gender roles. "Women are often more in the role of being a victim or a model or something like that," he said.
But the tracker is a good starting point to highlight the issue of gender inequality in media coverage, which Berggren believes is crucial to target if we want to see change reflected in society.
"I think news [outlets] shape the way we view the world; they are the picture of the world that you are sent daily, so it's quite an important place to start to change stuff—to make people view the world differently," he said.