Stories about women—or even featuring comments by women—remain a rare commodity on the pages and websites of America's newspapers. "The visibility of female names has not been able to rise above one-fifth of all references," reports a research team led by McGill University sociologist Eran Shor.
While some have argued this is evidence of media sexism, Shor and his colleagues report it actually reflects a larger and more troubling reality. They conclude this lack of balance is the result of "the persistent dominance of men in top positions across various social categories."
In other words, news is made by powerful, influential people, and in the worlds of business, politics, sports, and entertainment, those movers and shakers are still overwhelmingly male.
"The visibility of female names has not been able to rise above one-fifth of all references."
Shor and his colleagues analyzed data from a wide variety of American newspapers from 1983 to 2009, focusing primarily on male and female names appearing in news columns. When the information was available, they also compared those results with such variables as the political leanings of the paper, and the gender of publishers and editors (including editors of specific sections).
Perhaps surprisingly, they found the aforementioned factors did not significantly influence the amount of coverage given to women. Male sources dominated news coverage whether the editors were male or female, and whether the editorials favored liberal or conservative positions.
Among obscure individuals—people mentioned in the paper once or twice—men and women were quoted in roughly equal numbers. But coverage largely focused on people at the top of various hierarchies—people in positions of influence and authority. And in the vast majority of cases, these were men.
"Newspapers appearing in states where women were able to reach high-level positions in the business world tend to exhibit a much higher rate of female rates in their news coverage," the researchers write in the American Sociological Review. "When women occupy high-level positions (in business or politics) in greater numbers, newspaper coverage of women increases."
The researchers' data did not cover the past five years, but "a small manual examination of a few selected issues" of newspapers found "the approximate five-to-one male-to-female ratio does not seem to have changed much," they write.
What's more, a random sample taken from 2014 Facebook data found a "very similar pattern" to that of newspapers. "In both cases," the researchers write, "references to female names are on par with references to male names at low levels of mentions, but lag far behind at high levels."
So it appears that new media, much like traditional media, is "bound by journalistic norms (often reflecting public demand) that dictate dedicating ample coverage to top politicians, public officials, business people, athletes, and entertainers," Shor and his colleagues conclude. "As long as these individuals remain overwhelmingly male, journalists' ability to make a substantial change and report equally on men and women remains limited."
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.