This week, our Open Gender Tracker team was astonished to find a news organisation with equal participation by women. At the international citizen media news site Global Voices, 764 women have written 51% of all posts, a trend they have held consistent for years, our data shows.
It’s reasonable to be downcast about the role of women in the news. In the UK, newspaper front pages rarely include women, and women write a minority of articles. Women are prominent at the Daily Mail, where they write most of the celebrity news, fewer news articles, and almost no sport. Even when publications do include women, they’re often at the mercy of their audiences. 20% of Telegraph opinion articles are written by women, but women’s opinion articles attract only 14% of the Telegraph’s shares and likes on social media.
Monday, Vida Web Women in Literary Arts released their annual byline count, highlighting the substantial absence of women from many literary magazines. Women’s books are a minority of book reviews in many publications, even though women write the majority of UK fiction bestsellers, as data scientist Lynn Cherny has shown. The disparity between bestsellers and reviews makes the literary arts different from opinion writing, at least in the US, where mentoring strategies are increasing the visibility of women.
Gender diversity at Global Voices
Global Voices is a global news site that translates and explains events and issues worldwide. A typical post, like this story on Monday’s election in Kenya, curates tweets, citizen photos, and news articles for an international audience. Global Voices also translates and amplifies short summaries of content from regional sites, like this update on the best Central Asian Harlem Shake videos. Although editors are paid, most translators and writers are volunteers.
Volunteer sites like Wikipedia often have trouble attracting women contributors, and women Wikipedians tend toward only some kinds of stories. That’s not true at Global Voices, where women’s writing is strong across all regions. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of posts are written by men, women are writing nearly 40% of the posts. In contrast, only 33% of the Guardian’s news articles and 19% of the Telegraph’s news articles include women as writers.
However you slice it, Global Voices publishes a diverse set of voices at all levels of participation, from the most prolific to the most casual. Here’s the gender breakdown grouped by the number of posts a writer has contributed:
How to create diversity in the news
Critiques of newsrooms’ lack of diversity tend to focus on employment choices and editorial practices. Online, says Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices, a diverse newsroom benefits from choosing balanced leadership, building teams that value difference, setting norms, and searching for unlikely paths to participation.
Balanced leadership can’t substitute for outreach. In a Skype interview, Solana told us that Global Voices started as a cooperation between Rebecca McKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman at Harvard University. Women have been prominent editors since its founding in 2004, but diversity was limited by the lack of women in the tech, law, and university settings where it started. As our data shows, gender diversity expanded as Global Voices grew to include more countries and contexts. Global Voices also funds initiatives to connect off-grid villages and help underrepresented voices find an audience online.
It’s important to make gender diversity the norm, Solana tells us. Because Global Voices expects it, editors tend to notice obvious gaps. The Middle East/North Africa section is especially focused on diversity; editors will urge women to speak up, sending emails to the internal list saying “Come on MENA Women, let’s show these men.”
Sam Meier, gender editor at the opinion site PolicyMic, agrees. PolicyMic is a New York startup that’s opening the editorial process to voting from the audience. Recruitment is still important, and Sam looks for new writers in places where women are already using their voices, like the social blogging service Tumblr. Even then, it’s important to set norms, she says. At sites with “a good track record of addressing diversity, there are often a few key people who have identified holes in coverage, have been able to see that a demographic is missing, and have done something to redress it.”
Paths to participation are changing in surprising ways at Global Voices, Solana tells us. Their outreach once looked like PolicyMic’s: a search for regional bloggers to mentor for a broader audience. Now that blogs are shrinking in popularity, Global Voices is finding new writers among translators. New translators start because they want to share a post with people in their language. After they become regular translators, they notice gaps in coverage and want to fill them. Global Voices tracks conversion rates on translators becoming full writers, supporting the transition to using their own voice in public.
Tracking gender diversity in news content
We did our analysis of Global Voices with Open Gender Tracker, an open source, deployable service funded by a Knight Foundation Prototype grant. Our software calculates the diversity breakdown of digital content using metrics like author gender. It builds on the methods from an earlier Guardian DataBlog post on gender in the UK news last autumn and an analysis of Twitter sources used in Global Voices coverage of the Arab Spring.
To track gender on Global Voices, we obtained the full archives of the site from 2005-2012 and loaded the data into Open Gender Tracker. The software automatically estimated the gender of the writers, based on author first names. The Global Voices community filled the gaps for names our software missed. We made one other adjustment. Most posts on Global Voices are single-paragraph links to other sites, written by the editors. We filtered out those links to focus on original content.
Open Gender Tracker is open source software. You can get the code on Github and download the spreadsheet below.
• Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media where J. Nathan Matias is a researcher, cofounded Global Voices.