Her results, which were first reported by Laura McGann at Vox, reflected what many women in journalism have personally experienced. “Female political journalists didn’t need a study to know this but here it is,” tweeted Clara Jeffery, the editor in chief of Mother Jones. “Journalist twitter is a kickstand party,” noted Lydia Polgreen, the editor in chief of the Huffington Post.
Still, the scale of the disparity Usher found surprised her. “We couldn’t believe what we saw,” she said. “We thought we had made a mistake.”
Usher and her colleagues analyzed the Twitter accounts of 2,292 Beltway journalists with congressional credentials, and analyzed their tweets from June and July 2017. The men not only outnumbered their female colleagues by 57 percent to 43 percent, but had amassed roughly twice as many followers.
They were also more likely to engage with each other. Usher found that when male Beltway journalists reply to other Beltway journalists, the recipient is male 92 percent of the time. When they retweet other Beltway journalists, the beneficiary is male 74 percent of the time. Women show a different pattern: To a lesser extent, they’re more likely to reply to other women (72 percent of the time), but they’re still more likely to retweet men (60 percent of the time). “Women are doing a good job of building their own communities, but these aren’t breaking through to the rest of Twitter,” Usher said.
These disparities compound each other and perpetuate themselves, creating a network in which men disproportionately promote each other to their already inflated numbers of followers. “The more male voices we hear or see or read, the more likely those voices are to rise to prominence,” says Francesca Donner, who directs The New York Times’ gender initiative. “The more prominent they are, the more likely they are to be quoted or retweeted. And so it goes.” It’s hardly surprising that when Usher compiled lists of the most influential Beltway journalists on Twitter according to various metrics, women rarely featured in the top 25, and almost never broke into the top 10.
Why do these disparities exist? Partly, it’s because men tweet more in the first place, sending out, on average, 38 percent more unprompted tweets than women per account. But quantity doesn’t mean quality. Usher noted that women may simply have less time for tweeting, given the emotional labor that they perform both at work and at home. “Twitter is also a very toxic platform for women,” she added. Why spend time in a place where even innocuous interactions are subject to grotesque harassment and patronizing attitudes?
Skeptics might ask: So what? After all, this study only looked at a very specific set of reporters, in one beat, in one location, on one platform. But that denies the disproportionate powers and responsibilities of those reporters, in that beat, in that place, on that platform. “Political journalists shape the dialogue of national news, and their engagement with each other shapes all of that,” Usher said. “Beltway Twitter is deeply insular, but that insularity has a global reach.”