Pando

Think sexism in tech is bad? It's time for journalism to face its own diversity issues

By David Holmes , written on September 15, 2014

From The News Desk

In recent months, news outlets have rightfully taken tech companies to task over their lack of racial and gender diversity. Women make up only 10 percent of Twitter's technology staff, 15 percent of Facebook's, and 17 percent of Google's, according to the companies' self-published diversity reports, indicating there is indeed much room for improvement.

But as much as journalists like to hold tech companies accountable for their lackluster diversity numbers (and they should), it's time for the news industry to take a good hard look at its own hiring biases.

According to the Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media, men occupy 73 percent of the top management jobs. That figure is only marginally better than the leadership demographics at Twitter (79 percent male), Facebook (77 percent male), and Google (79 percent male). The numbers are even worse when it comes to minorities -- according to the Columbia Journalism Review, 90 percent of "newsroom supervisors" are white.

Although journalism's demographic imbalances may seem equal to or better than the tech industry's on paper, a closer look at the numbers reveals that, in some ways, they're ever worse. Only 18 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women. While that number reveals its own set of troubling cultural biases, it does mean that the hiring pool of women in tech is considerably smaller. But according to Harvard's Nieman Reports*, the number of women pursuing communication degrees has been roughly equal to or greater than the number of men since 1980. And yet something happens after women enter the industry -- Nieman reports that, "among journalists with 20 or more years of experience, only a third are women."

Why do women leave? There are a host of reasons -- some of them specific to journalism, some related to career and lifestyle choices made by women, and some of them representative of corporate culture at large, like the fact that in news, as in industries across the country, women make less money than men.

Nieman also posits that upward mobility in the newsroom is generally granted to those who cover "harder" topics like politics and business. It cites a study by the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina which found that only 29 percent of the New York Times' front page articles were written by women.

Women who do make it to upper management positions are then faced with a whole new set of challenges. Much has been written of Jill Abramson's exit from the New York Times, where unnamed sources described her as "stubborn" and "condescending" -- qualities that are common among top editors and are often forgiven in men.

Nor do female editors or news entrepreneurs always share in the same glory as their male counterparts. Just last week, Vanity Fair published an idiotic list of "News Disrupters." And while complaining about who is or isn't on a list is always a losing battle, many rightly commented on the ridiculousness of including Vox's Ezra Klein but not his fellow cofounder Melissa Bell. The same goes for including Valleywag's Sam Biddle but not his co-editor Nitasha Tiku. (At the Toast, Mallory Ortberg compiled a great list of female editors and writers worth following. "There," she writes, "that took, like, an hour, and I’m not even a real journalist. IT’S NOT THAT HARD."

You might think that striking out on your own can help level the playing field. But that usually takes money -- only 13 percent of venture capital deals went to women in the first half of 2013, and that includes female media entrepreneurs. This imbalance was brought to a head when Bryan Goldberg announced on Pando that he had raised $6.5 million for what he absurdly described as the first-ever "women’s publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips" -- as if there weren't already a ton of sites like that, many of which are run by women and have raised a lot less money.

Sexual harassment can also prompt women to leave the industry. In a post published today called "Gender has been an advantage for most of my career," Steve Buttry, a journalism instructor with four decades of newspaper experience, writes, "I’ve witnessed blatant sexual discrimination and sexual harassment against promising women without children (who left the business). I’ve seen 30-ish childless newlyweds and 40-ish unmarried women leave journalism frustrated at their lack of opportunities and/or at being passed over for less-capable male colleagues."

I recommend reading both the Nieman Reports study and Buttry's post in full. The former describes the problem in as much detail as anything I've ever read, and the latter offers a ton of valuable advice to reporters working at any level of a newsroom on how to combat gender discrimination.

Moreover, they're both reminders that when journalists discuss socioeconomic problems in the startup world (which we should continue to do!), the same arguments can be made about almost any industry -- especially our own.

[Image via Wikimedia]

  • An earlier version of this story stated that the article was published by Nieman Journalism Lab. It was published by its sister publication Nieman Reports.