I’m pissed at myself right now.
I’m a science writer, and I just turned in one of my biggest articles to date. Over the course of several months I interviewed nearly a dozen researchers and scientists around the globe to get the scoop on the pretty cool uses of a new technology.
But as my editor and I made the finishing touches on the piece, I realized something very important was off about the article.
Therein we find one of journalism’s roles in the silicon divide: journalists simply don’t interview enough female sources. I've never found a real study of male versus female sources in science reporting, but in other topics—such as presidential politics—the number of female sources is sometimes as low as 20 percent.
Why does this matter? For one thing, as Gloria Steinem famously said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” If young women don’t see people like themselves in movies or books or on TV—or read about them in the articles that journalists write about high-tech industries—will they picture themselves working in those professions? At the very least, when journalists ignore female sources, we are contributing to the problem, not helping.
Now, this one article aside, closing the silicon divide in my own articles has actually been a major goal of mine for 2016. Like a lot of journalists, I want to make a difference. In this case, that involves tracking my down more female sources to interview.
Why am I doing this now? The idea crept into my head late last year after I interviewed Kate McCarthy of the Women’s Media Center. McCarthy runs a new WMC program called SheSource, which links journalists with more than 1,000 female experts in a number of fields, ranging from politics to entertainment to technology. I have since used the service to find a number of experts, and although it’s still growing, it has already proven itself immensely valuable.
McCarthy tells me that one of the reasons journalists don’t use as many female sources is because time and time again they turn to the contacts who are already in their rolodexes. “Journalists often return to the same people who we know are going to pick up the phone and get back us,” she said. Deadlines, invariably, drive this unintentional behavior. “That’s not the time to be doing research into people you don’t know,” she added.
A solution, she suggests, is for journalists to spend some time in between deadlines to build up their database of women experts. “Do a pre-interview with people you find who are experts in an area you regularly report on,” she said. “Then it’s very easy to turn to them, and you’ve built up a level of trust with them so when you’re on that tight deadline then they can be part of that group you turn to regularly.”
McCarthy also suggests reaching out on Twitter, LinkedIn or other networking sites. “Why not put out a call on social media?" she asked. “We do shout-outs like that quite often and we get a lot of great responses.”
Both of those strategies, along with SheSource, have played key roles in my attempts to interview more women this year. I have also spent a lot of time combing through my earlier articles to identify women whom I have interviewed in the past to find people I can reach out to again in the future. I was pleasantly surprised by how many women I have interviewed previously, but more than a bit chagrinned to find that I hadn’t communicated with some of them for two, three or even four years.
All of this is starting to make a difference in my coverage. The articles that I published in January of this year included interviews with 15 people: 10 men and five women. February was better: 12 male sources versus nine female. In March, I achieved parity: 13 men and 13 women interviewed.
All told, that puts me up to 43.55 percent female sources for the year—much better than my 25-30 percent last year. That ratio is going to slip a little while once the big article sees print, but my goal is to push that back up to 50-50 by the end of the year.
The ultimate objective here, McCarthy pointed out, shouldn’t just be to have more female sources, but to add more nuance to reporting. You can’t objectively cover the world, she says, if you ignore half of the population. Increasing the breadth of sources in journalism—not just gender but also ethnicity and even location—provides greater context based on sources' different life experiences. That, in turn, attracts more readers, who end up better informed.
“I think we all like reading about the experiences that we’re having and seeing the media reflect our lives rather than the lives that feel disconnected from ours or are less relevant to ours,” she said.
It may even lead to covering a broader range of stories. This, again, helps support women in the sciences. If journalists don’t cover issues that matter to women—everything from work-life balance issues to the disparity in funding for female entrepreneurs—will they keep working in science and technology or will they move on?
This is hardly a theoretical question. A 2014 report called “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering” found that the majority of women who left techology professions did so because of cultural reasons, such as long working hours or lack of perceived opportunities for advancement. Those are very real issues worthy of covering, but journalists may never hear about them if they only interview men.
I asked McCarthy if covering things such as brogrammer culture could actually push more women out of tech by showcasing a profession in which they may not feel welcome. She disagreed. “I don’t think if people write about something that’s bad, that it’s making things worse,” she said. “It’s acknowledging the fact that it’s happening.” It serves as a reminder to women that they’re not alone, that their voices matter, and that they can share their own stories more confidently and openly.
One of the real questions in my attempt at source parity will be to see if it changes my own reporting in any way. It’s early, but I think that’s already starting to happen. I find myself looking for unreported or under-reported stories and trying to talk to people who other journalists aren’t reaching. I also try to finish my interviews by asking my sources, once I feel that I have gained their trust, “what else is going on in your field that I should write about?” That’s a start, and I hope it leads to some truly meaningful stories as the year moves forward.
Will this attempt at source parity alone be enough to help close the silicon divide? Well, no, not right away, and not if I’m the only one doing it. But I hope it can start to build a few bridges that more people can cross in the future.
Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.