Monday, April 05, 2010

Benignly Neglected?

That's one theory about the dearth of women in various important places: It's not based on outright hatred of women or explicit attempts not to have those icky creatures round but simply the invisibility of women.

There's something to that, I believe. I've recently noticed that when the BBC, for example, interviews "people on the street" they are about nine times out of ten men, whatever the country and whatever the topic. Do the BBC journalists avoid women on purpose? Probably not. But having just male voices doesn't sound "off" the way having just female voices does. That's because men are seen as the default human beings.

This post was provoked by a quick study by the NPR ombudsman on the number of female experts and commentators in the NPR programs:

With the aid of NPR librarian Hannah Sommers, we compiled a list of regular commentators, who are not NPR employees but are paid to appear on air. There are 12 outside commentators who appeared at least 20 times in the last 15 months. The only woman is former NPR staffer, Cokie Roberts (51 times), who is on ME most Mondays talking politics.

Otherwise, males dominate, especially on subjects of sports, politics and the economy


We also looked at the number of people from outside NPR who were interviewed by NPR news shows, or whose voices appeared in reporters' stories. For this analysis, we examined 104 shows, using a 'constructed week'* sampling technique from April 13, 2009 to Jan. 9, 2010.

Those figures are equally discouraging.

NPR listeners heard 2,502 male sources and 877 female sources on the shows we sampled. In other words, only 26 percent of the 3,379 voices were female, while 74 percent were male. [See chart.]

To see that chart, read the whole story, including the counterarguments.

I'm sure that a study like that can be done with greater care. But remember that this is the NPR! If women are found in reasonable numbers ANYWHERE in the media, it's at the NPR. Hence the most likely reason for these omissions:

"I doubt there is a conscious, systemic aversion to selecting women as sources at NPR," said Jill Geisler of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank. "But benign neglect is still neglect and its impact just as harmful to society."

Is such a neglect benign if it harms the society?