Journalism can sometimes hold up a magnifying glass to structural inequalities. But sometimes, it can reinforce them – which is why this journalist decided to do something about it.
But, it turns out, lots of journalism actually has an implicit bias against women and their work – which is why British writer Ed Yong decided to tackle it in his own journalism.
In 2016, Yong’s colleague Adrienne LaFrance had “trawled through a year of her own work” to analyse the gender ratio of her sources. And she found that just 22% were women, something that she described as “distressing”. “By failing to quote or mention very many women, I’m one of the forces actively contributing to a world in which women’s skills and accomplishments are undermined or ignored, and women are excluded,” she wrote.
And when Yong decided to repeat her experiment with his own work, he found a similar ratio.
“Shortly after Adrienne published her analysis, I looked back at the pieces that I had published in 2016 thus far,” he wrote in The Atlantic. And of those stories, Yong says, just 24% of quoted sources were women – and 35% featured no women at all.
“That surprised me,” he writes. “I knew it wasn’t going to be 50 percent, but I didn’t think it would be that low, either. I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.”
The findings, Yong says, represent a wider “gauntlet of systemic biases” against women in science. Women “face long-standing stereotypes about their intelligence and scientific acumen,” he points out; they also need better grades to get the same level of acclaim, receive fewer opportunities for mentoring and are “rated as less competent and employable than equally qualified men”. Women are also less likely to be invited to give talks, face horrific abuse and, on top of it all, earn less.
These systemic biases also find their way into the media, too, with women journalists getting fewer bylines, less time on camera, more quotes than men and, again, less money.
So Yong decided to “actively redress the balance”, spending time interviewing more women, contacting more sources, checking Twitter more and researching past stories. “I just spend a little more time on all of the above—ending the search only when I have a list that includes several women,” he says.
“Crucially, I tracked how I was doing in a simple spreadsheet. I can’t overstate the importance of that: It is a vaccine against self-delusion. It prevents me from wrongly believing that all is well.”
Since starting the project, the proportion of women quoted in Yong’s stories has stayed between “42 and 61 percent from month to month”.
Many working in the field have praised Yong’s efforts.
This resonates so much with my (limited) experience. A journalist contacted only my male co-author to discuss our work, even though I was both the lead author & the corresponding author of the peer reviewed article in question!— Kathleen Bachynski (@bachyns) February 6, 2018
I appreciate your efforts. When I get asked for a quote, it weighs heavily on me if I turn it down. I turned down a requested quote this week about a paper that was on the edge of my expertise. I thought, “What happens if I’m the only woman they asked?” #gendertaxation is real.— Linda Bui (@Lindambui) February 6, 2018
A standing ovation to @edyong209 for this piece & what it describes. *This* is the attitude that will push the culture change needed to create a more equal society. We all need to step up & we can all use actual data to track our progress. https://t.co/2w3WN6k9PD— Helen Czerski (@helenczerski) February 7, 2018
Great work and great piece.— ♿️G BC Needs Disability Rights Legislation Peters (@mssinenomine) February 6, 2018
Also really excited to read you are considering making a similar effort to consciously include the voices of disabled people more.
One of the many reasons I respect and love @edyong209's work. Media absolutely impacts culture & one of the most important roles of journalism is unearthing inequalities and "giving voice to the voiceless." https://t.co/0tJ811yq4Q pic.twitter.com/HFqxHpLjAU— Nicole Clark (@nicalexiac) February 6, 2018
Yong is now undergoing the same project with the voices of people colour – a figure that currently stands, for his work, between 15 and 47 percent. “I want to make it higher,” he says – and he’s also “thinking about how to include more voices from LGBTQ, disabled and immigrant communities”.
“Sceptics might argue that I needn’t bother, as my work was just reflecting the present state of science,” Yong writes. “But I don’t buy that journalism should act simply as society’s mirror.”
“Yes, it tells us about the world as it is, but it also pushes us toward a world that could be. It is about speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless.”
“Anyone can do this.”