Science and technology often skews male. Journalism often does too. Here’s what we’re doing to tackle gender imbalance on our site… and why it matters.

In May 2018, BBC Future signed on to the BBC’s 50:50 challenge. The goal was simple: to get to an equal split of male and female representation across the site.

 While the media didn’t invent gender bias, it has a key role in perpetuating it

We’re in excellent company. Both inside and outside of the BBC, more journalists and editors are realising that, while the media didn’t invent gender bias, it has a key role in perpetuating it. The BBC’s director-general has announced a target of 50:50 across all of the BBC’s programmes and sites by April 2019. The challenge is also being piloted by media organisations in the US and Europe.

How can you calculate gender representation? Like other digital journalism teams at the BBC, we use three categories: bylines, references (for BBC Future, that means anyone mentioned in a story, including interviewees, study authors and historical figures), and photographs.

The difficulty with this, of course – and the reason why it’s called a “challenge” – is that often the most established, media-facing experts are more likely to be male. And in many beats that we cover, the more established journalists often are male, too.

Both in newsrooms and in news articles, men are leaders by a ratio of about 3:1 – Adrienne LaFrance

“Both in newsrooms and in news articles, men are leaders – they make more money, get more bylines, spend more time on-camera, and are quoted far more often than women – by a ratio of about 3:1,” writes Adrienne LaFrance, editor of TheAtlantic.com.

It would be easy for us to say that we didn’t set the system up that way, and that it’s too much to try to work around it.

But like many of our industry peers, we decided that wasn’t good enough. After all, mirroring gender imbalance with our own coverage isn’t a benign act. It perpetuates the problem. As the New York Times’s David Leonhardt wrote earlier this year:

“Think of it this way: there is abundant evidence of sexism in our society. Women pay huge career penalties for having children. Women are more likely to be interrupted. They are more likely to endure hateful attacks on social media. Some research has found that women are less likely to be hired than similarly qualified men. Other research has found that women are more likely to be called ‘bossy’ and men more likely to be called ‘brilliant’. When men and women collaborate on a project, the men often receive more public acclaim, like having their names mentioned first. The list goes on and on.

“All of which means that journalists aren’t being neutral if they just go about their business and pretend to ignore gender. They are allowing sexism to help dictate their sources – and are perpetuating the problem. The people who get quoted today, after all, are more likely to be invited onto a panel tomorrow and offered a sweet new job next year.”

Those are the practical consequences of continuing with the status quo. Then there’s the other problem: how it reinforces the damaging implicit biases that both we and you – our readers – already carry.

Close your eyes and picture a scientist. Imagine the details: what they’re wearing, the instruments they use, and the lab they’re standing in. Now ask yourself. Do you see a man or a woman?

If you’re like the majority of respondents in a study of 350,000 people from 66 countries around the world, you probably imagined a man.

Try again, this time picturing a renowned academic, a business leader, or a physician – three other types of people we also tend to interview frequently. Again, many people will envision a man. The problem, of course, is that such implicit bias affects how we see others – and ourselves.

Women in science face a gauntlet of well-documented systemic biases – Ed Yong

As Ed Yong notes in The Atlantic: “Women in science face a gauntlet of well-documented systemic biases. They face long-standing stereotypes about their intelligence and scientific acumenThey need better college grades to get the same prestige as equally skilled men, they receive less mentoring, they’re rated as less competent and less employable than equally qualified men, they’re less likely to be invited to give talks, they earn less than their male peers, and they have to deal with significant levels of harassment and abuse.”

One way to weaken those stereotypes, researchers Alice Eagly, Marcia Linn and David Miller write, may be “highlighting diverse examples of female scientists”, particularly since “presenting single or infrequent examples of female scientists will likely not substantially change gender-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) stereotypes, especially if such women are presented as token examples.”

From finding the cure to cancer to curbing climate change, we're facing big challenges — and by not covering and attributing the work of all of the potential talent we have in every field, we’re making it harder 

All of this is reason alone for us to commit to the project. After all, part of our mission at BBC Future is offering solutions for global challenges. Bias against half of the world’s population is a challenge in its own right. But it’s more than that. From finding the cure to cancer to curbing climate change, we have a lot of other big challenges to overcome. And by not covering and attributing the work of all of the potential talent we have in every field, regardless of gender, we’re making it harder to find solutions.

But there is another big reason we signed on, too: our commitment to our readers.

To make it clear, we will continue to interview, and reference, the most qualified people. That hasn’t changed, and nothing about seeking out female voices undermines that. (As LaFrance writes, “Yes, my job is to serve readers by finding the best sources for my stories, but why assume that the best source isn’t a woman?”).

In fact, if anything, we think seeking out women’s voices makes our stories better.

Our aim is to shine a light on the hidden ways that the world is changing, and offer new views and ideas that you might not hear about elsewhere. (Read more about BBC Future’s mission here). We can’t do that if we’re always relying on the same pool of established, mostly male experts – ones we and our competitors call up because they are the easiest, most-established contacts for media interviews.

We’re also committed to delivering fair and accurate journalism – and sometimes we only catch our own bias when we speak to someone who has a different perspective.

Finally, seeking an array of voices helps us find stories most relevant to you: a diverse, global audience of both men and women from around the world. And it helps us tell those stories in the richest, sharpest, most interesting way we can.

Still, our motivations were one thing. Could we pull it off?

*

Before we could aim for 50:50, we had to know where we were. So May 2018 was our “monitoring month”: we didn’t share our new mission with all of our writers, but quietly added up how we were doing.

The good news was that our bylines were 54% female – but the other numbers dragged us down to 35% women overall

Our findings were humbling. The good news was that our bylines were 54% female. But the other numbers dragged us down to 35% women overall. This was interesting, since there can be the perception that more female writers means more female experts. We haven’t found any signal to suggest that is the case – which rings true for me, since I’m just as likely to source male experts as anyone else doing a Google search, regardless of my gender.

One surprise was that only 34% of the people featured in photographs were female. When I dug into the data, it made sense. The most intractable stories to illustrate were stories on the male-dominated history of an already male-dominated industry, like medicine or the military. Other male-illustrated stories were, again, about male-dominated spaces or places, whether science laboratories or criminal courts. But we couldn’t just blame “the system”; our own implicit bias came into play. Especially for the contemporary subjects, we could have found photographs of women for these pieces. But because we weren’t thinking about it consciously, we didn’t.

References were lower still: 31%. The challenge wasn’t just with history stories, but across the board. In fact, if you took out the two stories we ran that were in the Health Gap, a series specifically about how sexism affects women’s health, which organically featured more female voices, the references fell to 27%.

Clearly, we had work to do.

*

As we shared the mission with more of our freelancers and talked more about it as a team, our numbers popped up. In June, our first “active” month, we hit 50% overall. While some months were better than others, through the summer we mostly remained close to 50%.

Total count (click/pinch the chart to expand):

 

You can see from our chart that we quickly found that one of the easiest ways to help our numbers was with pictures. That’s something we’re of two minds about: choosing more photographs with more women seems a little bit like gaming the system. On the other hand, if a big part of the 50:50 challenge’s importance is what image we’re reflecting to our audience, then pictures are key.

What we continued to struggle with the most was references. That is why we were excited when, in October, we hit a milestone: for the first time, references came in above 50% female – at 51%.

How had we gotten there?

There were a few ways. No doubt it helped that we ran the women-focused Health Gap season during this period. But we also started to make gender-even sourcing a requirement in all our commissions, something requested of our writers along with a deadline and word count. Along with that requirement, we also now send a list of resources where writers can find female experts in specific fields, and we offer to help ourselves if a writer is struggling to find the right people.

We also became more aware of tweaks we can make on the editorial side. It’s common, for example, for science journalists to mention a lead author by name when they write about a study – even if they didn’t interview the lead author. Since the reader is unlikely to know who the academic is, this sort of name-checking isn’t particularly helpful. And for those who are interested in more information, we always hyperlink to studies regardless. So we started cutting more of those references – which, as you can imagine, were mostly men.

On their side, our writers started acting on our tips. Instead of always interviewing (usually male) lead study authors, for example, they reached out to (more frequently female) co-authors – often academics who were more likely to do the day-to-day on the study and closer to the topic at hand. And when press officers gave them a male interviewee as a first option, they wrote back and asked if there was an equally qualified woman they could speak to. (Nine times out of 10, there was).

Still, the challenge was far from over.

After October, our numbers fell again. In both November and December, we flat-lined at a 43% to 44% overall count. One month, it was references that pulled us down; another month, bylines.

We also continue to be reminded that we need to be attentive to the gender balance of every story – even ones we think will take care of themselves. Take this piece: my first draft mentioned three men and no women. (Yes, that realisation was more than a little embarrassing).

Still, we’re proud of how far we’ve come – and of what we’ve shown we can do. Our current overall number, 44%, is much closer to 50:50 than it is to where we started (35%). Our bylines mostly have been an even split, and we’ve paid particular attention to finding and mentoring new writers that are women.

Count excluding Health Gap stories (click/pinch on the chart to expand):

What’s next? Reaching 50:50 again, of course – and across all stories, no matter what the topic. If we could get there in October, a month where stories included male-dominated topics like the space race, fighting wildfires and the state of politics, we know we can do it again.

Beyond that, we’re looking at other ways in which we can make our content more inclusive – not to mention more representative of the world we’re seeking to cover. Recently, we’ve aimed to tell stories from around the globe, from Tanzania to Nepal. But there’s much more that we can do.

When you pictured a typical scientist earlier – whether it was a man or woman – what ethnicity did you picture? We know that implicit racial bias can also sneak into our commissioning, sources and photographs.

So there, too, we have work to do.

But one story at a time, we promise you this: we’re working on bringing you the best journalism that we can – and that means journalism that goes beyond the status quo.

Amanda Ruggeri is the senior editor of BBC Future. She is @amanda_ruggeri on Twitter.

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