This Week We’re Exploring Gender Inequality in Tech—Starting With Ourselves
For our “Silicon Divide” theme week we’re looking at gender inequality—starting with ourselves.
Illustration: Shaye Anderson
Women make up half of the population, but only around a quarter of voices quoted by the media. On Motherboard, this figure appears to be even lower. We need to change this.
Gender inequality is an issue that regularly haunts the fields we cover. This week, as part of our "Silicon Divide" theme week, we'll be examining issues of gender in disparate aspects of tech and science, from sexism in the science lab to the gender gap in infosec. We'll be investigating Silicon Valley's obsession with women's fertility, exploring how automation is disproportionately affecting women, and asking why virtual reality porn is still predominantly made for the male gaze. But where better to start tackling the issue than by taking a look at our own work?
The underrepresentation of women in media is well-documented. The Global Media Monitoring Project 2015 reported that women made up 24 percent of people featured in traditional media (newspapers, radio, and TV) that year, and just 26 percent in digital media. "Across all media, women were the central focus of just 10 percent of news stories—exactly the same figure as in 2000," the report states.
A 2013 study found that over two months, front-page New York Times stories quoted over three times as many male sources as female sources. A study on 2012 US election coverage found women were even massively underrepresented in coverage of "women's issues" such as abortion and women's rights.
We wanted to take a look at our own representation of men and women across Motherboard, and so we crunched some numbers.
There's no set methodology to do this, so we decided to select one week of our coverage and manually comb through each story for mentions of men and women. We kept track of how many men and women were mentioned in each story, and how many men and women were quoted.
Naturally, every week on Motherboard brings different stories with different sources and it's impossible to draw truly representative data from such a short time span, but the purpose of this exercise was just to get a ballpark idea of our coverage.
The week we looked at was February 29 to March 6, the week before International Women's Day. This period saw stories on our usual spread of topics, with notable news coverage on the FBI-Apple encryption debate. We counted a total of 115 stories (we disregarded those in Terraform, our sci-fi section). We did not include sources where gender was not apparent—for example, if a quote was attributed to a "spokesperson" without a gender indicator, or if the source's gender was unknown, such as an anonymous hacker.
Across the week, we mentioned 217 men in stories and quoted 112. We mentioned 52 women and quoted 26. (A mention could just be a passing reference to someone by name; a quote refers to a direct quote, which could be from an interview or published words attributed to that person. All people who are quoted are also mentioned. Individuals in each story were only counted once, but the same man or woman may appear in more than one story.)
That means we both mentioned and quoted men more than four times as often as we mentioned and quoted women. Of the total number of people featured (269) whose gender was recorded, women made up 19.3 percent. Of the total number of people directly quoted, women made up 18.8 percent.
We don't think this is good enough. We can't possibly be reporting an accurate picture of our world and our future if we're largely ignoring 51 percent of the population. So what can we do?
There's no getting around the fact that the fields we cover—predominantly science and tech—are themselves male-dominated. It's difficult to offer a gender-diverse picture when you're covering an event that looks like this. We know that there's a gender gap in STEM; 70 percent of authors on published scientific papers are men, and tech companies' diversity reports show women making up around 30 percent of the workforce at Silicon Valley's biggest names.
Additionally, and specifically when it comes to the number of men and women "mentioned"— as opposed to quoted—I noticed a couple names coming up more than once. It's clear that many of the "superstars" in tech—think Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk—are men, and they've become cultural touchpoints even when a story isn't specifically about them. Furthermore, a gender gap in other areas of society likely contributes to a higher count of male "mentions": a list of wrestlers in this story about an EA Sports game skewed male, and an article about a politics simulator mentioned a number of politicians, all of whom were men except for Hillary Clinton. I saw Donald Trump's name come up several times in the week.
Of the total number of people featured whose gender was recorded, women made up 19.3 percent
But this broader lack of diversity is not an excuse for our own representation of women. We know there are women doing awesome stuff in the fields we cover; we know there are women with insightful views on the topics we're passionate about; and it's our job as journalists to make sure we're uncovering a range of stories and listening to a variety of different voices. (Of course, this does not only apply to women, who are the focus of this theme week—the figures for people of color, for instance, are even worse in both tech and media coverage. Looking specifically at our statistics for men and women also doesn't take into account non-binary genders, which are even less represented.)
One other data point we looked at was the gender of the writer of each story. Across the week, 67 of the stories we looked at were written by men and 38 by women; one did not have an individual's byline. If you look at our masthead, Motherboard's English-language editorial team is in fact split 50/50 on gender—a darn sight better than most media organisations—but these figures reflect the fact that men get more bylines. This is because not all editorial roles get this credit for stories (an editor on a piece doesn't get a byline) and many of our regular contributing writers and other freelancers are also men.
We found that 22.5 percent of people mentioned by female writers were women, while only 17 percent of people mentioned by male writers were women. This gap widened further when it came to direct quotes: 24 percent of people quoted by female writers were women, but only 14 percent of people quoted by male writers were women. In fact, although women wrote significantly fewer stories this week, their stories accounted for more than half of the direct quotes attributed to women.
That's not to suggest that our male writers are necessarily sexist; one explanation could be that different writers have different beats, which themselves may have different levels of gender diversity—for example, a writer may primarily cover security, or gaming. The stats we collected aren't enough for us to drill down into the inclusion of women in stories from specific beats.
There are almost certainly unconscious biases at play, however. Kate McCarthy runs SheSource at the Women's Media Center, a database of over 1,000 female experts that journalists can turn to when looking for sources. She noted that people tend to go first to people who look like them—and that men in particular tend to turn to men.
Speaking particularly on science and tech media, she explained in a phone interview, "I think that women have been underrepresented in science and technology over time, and I think old habits die hard. I think people are used to seeing certain sorts of people doing an authoritative voice in a particular area; I think that science journalists have tended to be more male and men tend to turn to men more than they turn to women, and more than women turn to women."
"So I think it's a case of the old boys' network, it's a case of the status quo, it's a case of nothing changes unless you are intentional about wanting to make a change," she added.
McCarthy said that recognising the problem and taking stock at where we're at was a good first step.
"You'll get a slightly different angle, often, depending on the source that you're going to"
We want to improve our representation, and there are some simple things we intend to do. There's no getting round the fact that one major reason for the gender imbalance in our sources is simple laziness; we all have our own networks and contacts in the fields we report on, and it's easier to call the guy you already have on speed dial when you're on deadline than to take the time to find someone new.
But as McCarthy explains, networks tend not to be too diverse.
Motherboard has discussed this at our recent all-hands editorial meetings, and we've all agreed to work to broaden our networks by actively reaching out to women in our areas of interest and building up our contact lists, following more women on social media, and keeping biases in mind when we're making decisions about our coverage.
By broadening our networks, we should also come across different stories in the first place; stories brought to us by a more diverse group of people that focus on issues we may otherwise have overlooked—and that perhaps aren't always so male-led.
McCarthy said she would always encourage aiming for a 50/50 split of men and women, even if it might take a while to get there.
"I think that if you look at the way that men and women report on different stories then you'll get a slightly different angle, often, depending on the source that you're going to," she said. "I always think there's a lot of scientific stories that particularly pertain to women or where women have a different outlook—look at the Zika virus for example."
This is a crucial point, because including more diverse voices is not about ticking a box. It's about finding the stories that matter most, getting the whole picture, and representing the voices of everyone, not just those that already have a bigger platform.
"A story is richer and deeper and more accurate if it includes the voices of a diverse group of people," McCarthy said, "and women are 51 percent of the population and have often been missed out of that equation."
Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.