Expert Commentary

Gender disparities and journalism: Research perspectives

2015 roundup of reports relevant to women and news media, with an emphasis on emerging trends and continuing problems with retention and promotion.

landmark survey in 2011 of more than 500 media companies worldwide found that women made up only about one-third of the journalism workforce.

Although U.S. newsrooms have seen some progress over the past few decades, there is little doubt that inequities still exist in terms of women achieving equal pay and top positions, as well as longevity in management, suggesting both a glass ceiling and “glass cliff” problem.

In the wake of the controversy over the firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson, significant questions continue to be raised about why progress at senior levels has been so slow and in some ways regressive: In 2004, there were seven female top editors among the 25 largest daily newspapers; but by 2014, there were only three. As detailed below, other problems persist in areas such as editorial board representation.

A 2015 report from the Women’s Media Center highlights a number of key trends, both positive and negative, and consolidates new scholarship on media of all kinds — from newspapers to television and Hollywood. That analysis and other recent related reports provide empirical evidence and context that can facilitate greater dialogue, and perhaps solutions, to these longstanding issues.

To put some of this data in context, familiarity with the larger academic literature may be helpful. See further research on the “glass escalator” hypothesis and the gender pay gap, as well as issues for women in financial leadership, politics, the sciences, and government.

The following reports provide substantial data and perspective on the news industry:


“The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2015”
Burton, Julie, et al. Women’s Media Center report, June 2015.

Summary: “Research that the WMC commissioned on one sector—the news industry—found that women, who are more than half the population, are assigned to report stories at a substantially lower rate than men. In evening broadcast news, women are on-camera 32 percent of the time; in print news, women report 37 percent of the stories; on the Internet, women write 42 percent of the news; and on the wires, women garner only 38 percent of the bylines. With the 2016 presidential election already under way, it is particularly disturbing that Novetta research for WMC shows men reporting 65 percent of U.S. political stories. This is not progress from the 2012 presidential election, when Novetta research for WMC found that 71 percent of all front-page stories were written by men and that on cable and network TV, political news show guests and experts were 77 percent men.”


“Outnumbered But Well-Spoken: Female Commenters in the New York Times
Pierson, Emma. Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing, 2015, Pages 1201-1213. doi: 10.1145/2675133.2675134

Abstract: “Using eight months of online comments on New York Times articles, we find that only 28% of commenters of identifiable gender are female, but that their comments receive more recommendations from other readers. Comments from women are more common on forums about parenting, fashion, and health, and on articles written by women. The number of recommendations comments from women receive is positively correlated with the percentage of men on a forum, and the number of recommendations men receive is negatively correlated with the percentage of men on a forum. Female commenters are more likely to remain anonymous and anonymous commenters receive fewer recommendations. Male and female commenters differ in their choice of topics to emphasize, backgrounds, and language; we find three specific examples in responses to articles about sexual assault, contraception, and farm subsidies. We discuss the implications of these gender differences for democratic discourse and suggest ways to increase gender parity.”


“Where are the Women?: Why We Need More Female Newsroom Leaders”
Griffin, Anna. Nieman Reports, Sept. 11, 2014.

Summary: “As part of our reporting on the state of female newsroom leadership, Nieman Reports examined research papers on gender in journalism leadership and interviewed more than 40 academics, media entrepreneurs, investors, publishers, executives, and current and former editors from more than two dozen organizations. We found that solutions do exist, as do bright spots that hint at better approaches to ensure diversity, but that they’re going to take time. All the more reason to start now…. Since 1980, women have equaled and occasionally outnumbered men at U.S. communication schools, and as many women as men enter the industry straight out of college. But as survey after survey shows, the percentage of women steadily declines after that. Among journalists with 20 or more years of experience, only a third are women. The statistics are similar around the world. Women opt out of the profession more frequently than men. That, researchers say, is the single biggest explanation for the lack of women at the top.”


“Where Are the Women? The Presence of Female Columnists in U.S. Opinion Pages”
Dustin Harp; Ingrid Bachmann; Jaime Loke. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, June 2014 vol. 91 no. 2 289-307. doi:10.1177/1077699014527457

Summary: “[O]ur analysis shows that the editorial boards of the newspapers are overwhelmingly male. On average, there are eleven members on each board, but only four women. Whites also dominate the board, averaging eight of eleven members. When looking at the list of editorial columnists, the picture is just as grim: on average, there are twenty-two columnists—six of them females, and only one of these an ethnic or racial minority…. Surprisingly, as women have traditionally more often covered issues related to family and home, politics—a traditionally masculine topic— was the most popular topic covered in these columns (34.0%), particularly at the Washington Post and among syndicated columnists (see Table 2). This signals an important inroad for female columnists, as women are usually marginalized in debates regarding public affairs and policy issues. Of course, the fact that opinion pages traditionally cover political issues might help to explain this finding. Other popular topics included business and economics (8.0%)—another masculine domain—health (5.8%), education (5.4%), and sports (4.2%). A total of eighteen stories (almost 6% of the sample) discussed gender issues, often times with regards to the so-called “war on women” in several legislatures or gender gaps discussed in the context of the 2012 election campaign. Thus … female columnists have broadened somewhat beyond stereotypically feminine topics, with two-fifths of the columns covering politics and economic issues.”


“ASNE Newsroom Census 2014”
American Society of News Editors (ASNE), July 2014.

Summary: “The number of minority journalists in daily-newspaper newsrooms increased by a couple of hundred in 2013 even as newsroom employment declined by 3.2 percent, according to the annual census released Tuesday by the American Society of News Editors and the Center for Advanced Social Research. This year’s census also found that 63 percent of the news organizations surveyed have at least one woman among their top three editors. The percent of minority leaders is lower, with 15 percent of participating organizations saying at least one of their top three editors is a person of color. This was the first year the questions about women and minorities in leadership were asked. Overall, the survey found, there are about 36,700 full-time daily newspaper journalists at nearly 1,400 newspapers in the United States. That’s a 1,300-person decrease from 38,000 in 2012. Of those employees, about 4,900, or 13.34 percent, are racial and ethnic minorities. That’s up about 200 people, or 1 percentage point, from last year’s 4,700 and 12.37 percent. It is nearly as high as the record of 13.73 percent in 2006.”


“Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media”
International Women’s Media Foundation, 2011.

Summary: “A groundbreaking Global Report on the Status Women in the News Media examining more than 500 companies in nearly 60 countries shows that men occupy the vast majority of the management jobs and news-gathering positions in most nations included in this study. In this long-awaited extensive study, researchers found that 73% of the top management jobs are occupied by men compared to 27% occupied by women. Among the ranks of reporters, men hold nearly two-thirds of the jobs, compared to 36% held by women. However, among senior professionals, women are nearing parity with 41% of the newsgathering, editing and writing jobs…. The two-year study covering 170,000 people in the news media found a higher representation of women in both governance and top management within both Eastern Europe (33% and 43%, respectively) and Nordic Europe (36% and 37%, respectively), compared to other regions. In the Asia and Oceana region, women are barely 13% of those in senior management, but in some individual nations women exceed men at that level, e.g., in South Africa women are 79.5% of those in senior management. In Lithuania women dominate the reporting ranks of junior and senior professional levels (78.5% and 70.6%, respectively), and their representation is nearing parity in the middle and top management ranks. The global study identified glass ceilings for women in 20 of 59 nations studied. Most commonly these invisible barriers were found in middle and senior management levels. Slightly more than half of the companies surveyed have an established company-wide policy on gender equity. These ranged from 16% of companies surveyed in Eastern Europe to 69% in Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.”


Tags: women, gender, newsroom, diversity, sexism, glass ceiling

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