I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories

Here’s what I’ve learned, and why I did it.

Three people in lab coats converse in a lab space with computers.
Hinterhaus Productions / Getty

In December 2015, I wrote a story about the potential uses of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. That piece, based on a conference that I attended in Washington, D.C., quoted six men and one woman. The six men included five scientists and one historian, all quoted for their professional expertise. The one woman was a communications director at a tissue bank organization, and her quote was about her experience as the mother of a child with a genetic disease.

These disparities, both in the absolute numbers of men and women, and the ways in which their quotes were used, leapt out at me, but only after the piece was published. They felt all the more egregious because the CRISPR field is hardly short of excellent, prominent female scientists. Indeed, two of the technique’s pioneers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, are women, and both of them spoke at the same conference from which I reported. And yet, if you read my piece, you could be forgiven for thinking that CRISPR was almost entirely the work of men.

Two months later, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance published a piece in which she analyzed the gender ratio of the sources in her Atlantic stories. In 2013, with the help of a computer scientist at MIT, she had trawled through a year of her own work. Of the people she mentioned across 136 articles, just 25 percent were women. She repeated the exercise for stories from 2015 and found an even lower figure: 22 percent. As Adrienne said:

These numbers are distressing, particularly because my beats cover areas where women are already outnumbered by men—robotics, artificial intelligence, archaeology, astronomy, etc. Which means that, 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 is right. Women in science face a gauntlet of well-documented systemic biases. They face long-standing stereotypes about their intelligence and scientific acumen. They need better college grades to get the same prestige as equally skilled men, they receive less mentoring, they’re rated as less competent and less employable than equally qualified men, they’re less likely to be invited to give talks, they earn less than their male peers, and they have to deal with significant levels of harassment and abuse.

Gender biases are also entrenched in the media, where, in the words of the sociologist Gaye Tuchman, women are being “symbolically annihilated.” As Adrienne noted in her piece, “both in newsrooms and in news articles, men are leaders—they make more money, get more bylines, spend more time on camera, and are quoted far more often than women.” Again, there’s plenty of data on this. Several analyses show that in news stories, male voices outnumber female ones, typically by a factor of three—the same ratio Adrienne found in her work.

I found that ratio in my work, too. Shortly after Adrienne published her analysis, I looked back at the pieces that I had published in 2016 thus far. Across all 23 of them, 24 percent of the quoted sources were women. And of those stories, 35 percent featured no female voices at all. That surprised me. 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.

I’ve since been trying to actively redress the balance, by spending more time searching for women to interview. For any given story, I almost always try to contact several sources. If, for example, I’m writing about a new scientific paper, I will interview the scientists behind the work, but also pass the paper around to get comments from independent researchers. To find the right people, I’ll look at related work that’s cited by the paper in question. I’ll google for people who do similar research. I’ll check Twitter. I’ll look at past news stories. To find more female sources, 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.

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. I’ve been doing this for two years now. Four months after I started, the proportion of women who have a voice in my stories hit 50 percent, and has stayed roughly there ever since, varying between 42 and 61 percent from month to month. And of the 312 stories I’ve written in that two-year window, only 7 percent feature no female voices. (This figure excludes the small number of stories that feature no voices of any gender.)

For the first year, I also tracked the number of people whom I asked for an interview, to check if I was actually contacting men and women in equal numbers and simply receiving a skewed set of replies. That wasn’t the case: In early 2016, women accounted for just 30 percent of people whom I contacted. As the year went on, I found that I would need to contact around 1.3 men to get one male quote, and around 1.6 women to get one female one. There are probably several reasons for this. First, women who work in fields where they are in the minority may already be overburdened with work and demands on their time. Second, I suspect women may be more likely than men to decline an interview on the assumption that they aren’t the right fit—something I have anecdotally experienced but haven’t rigorously quantified.

Finding diverse sources, and tracking them, takes time, but not that much time. I reckon it adds 15 minutes per piece, or an hour or so of effort over a week. That seems like a trifling amount, and the bare minimum that journalists should strive for. There are many ways for us to increase the diversity of our sources, and achieving gender parity is by far the simplest of them. After all, it is easy to guess someone’s gender based on their name, and when tracking progress, there is an obvious 50 percent threshold to aim for.

Since November 2015, I’ve also been tracking the number of people of color in my stories. That figure currently stands at 26 percent for the last year, ranging between 15 and 47 percent from month to month. I want to make it higher. I’m thinking about how to include more voices from LGBTQ, disabled, or immigrant communities. I’m thinking about the people who appear in the photos that accompany my pieces, rather than just those whose words appear within quote marks. Gender parity is a start, not an end point.

Skeptics might argue that I needn’t bother, as my work was just reflecting the present state of science. 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. And it is a profession that actively benefits from seeking out fresh perspectives and voices, instead of simply asking the same small cadre of well-trod names for their opinions.

Another popular critique is that I should simply focus on finding the most qualified people for any given story, regardless of gender. This point seems superficially sound, but falls apart at the gentlest scrutiny. How exactly does one judge “most qualified”? Am I to list all the scientists in a given field and arrange them by number of publications, awards, or h-index, and then work my way down the list in descending order? Am I to assume that these metrics somehow exist in a social vacuum and are not themselves also influenced by the very gender biases that I am trying to resist? It would be crushingly naïve to do so.

Note that this call to ignore gender and find the best sources almost always arises when journalists talk about including more female voices. Where is this ostensible concern about quality when it comes to news stories that predominantly quote men—which is to say, most news stories? Absent, because as Adrienne noted in her piece, this vein of criticism implicitly assumes that the best source is not a woman. It suggests that the status quo, in which men are overrepresented, is one in which the best sources are already being found.

I doubt it is. We don’t contact the usual suspects because we’ve made some objective assessment of their worth, but because they were the easiest people to contact. We knew their names. They topped a Google search. Other journalists had contacted them. They had reputations, but they accrued those reputations in a world where women are systematically disadvantaged compared to men.

A related criticism is that it would be insulting for a woman to be interviewed simply because she is a woman. This is a straw man. I’m not asking people for their opinions because of their gender; I’m asking because of their expertise. Every single person I contact is qualified to speak about the particular story that I’m writing; it’s just that now, half of those qualified people happen to be women.

It is getting increasingly easy to find such people. The journalist Christina Selby, writing at the Open Notebook, compiled a list of tips for diversifying sources. The journalist Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato created Diverse Sources, a searchable database of underrepresented experts in science. 500 Women Scientists, a nonprofit, created Request a Woman Scientist, a similar (and larger) database. Both can be filtered by country, specialty, and more. Several scientists have compiled lists of women in microbiology, astronomy, physics, evolution, political science, neuroscience, and more. I keep a personal list of women and people of color who work in the beats that I usually cover. And if these all fail, the most basic journalistic method always works: Ask someone. Get people in the field to suggest names.

Anyone can do this. As Kathy English, the public editor of the Toronto Star, said, resources like these go “a long way to make obsolete that eternal excuse for overlooking women’s voices: ‘But I couldn’t find a qualified woman.’ Indeed, she exists and she is ready to be heard.”