When the president of Harvard University suggested that innate biology may hinder women’s abilities in math and science — or that perhaps they are unwilling to devote the necessary time to work, journalists reported the fallout with glee.
We described the outrage of MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who said the remarks by Lawrence H. Summers made her physically ill, and the angry letter written by 50 Harvard professors who pointed out the paucity of females among their ranks. We quoted women who said Summers’ theories had been soundly refuted by biologists and social scientists. Even commonly cited findings on gender-based brain differences, which seem to show that women are less able at visuospatial processing but better at language, have never been repeated in larger, more reliable studies.
Yet, while we covered the Harvard incident in detail, there’s no indication that journalists took a minute to consider our own contributions to the longevity of misleading assumptions about women in academia and on the job. Perhaps it seems illogical that the media, which prides itself on uncovering injustice, should play a role in perpetuating disparities. But a glance at the gender representation within our own field should offer a hint at the possibility.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors only began gathering data on women in the newsroom in 1999. Last year, its members reported that the proportion of females had returned to the level tallied that year, about 37 percent, after a two-year decline. Women of color make up just 16 percent of those.
How might such under-representation influence the public’s perception of women? Our choice of sources and the way we use them might offer a clue. Consider data collected by MediaTenor, an international content analysis company. When MediaTenor researchers studied sourcing in 2003, they found that U.S. news programs relegated women to stereotypical fields of expertise: health, society and human interest. Overall, international television news stories included women only 14 percent of the time. Similarly, in 2001, women made up just 15 percent of all sources on U.S. network news, and only 9 percent of professional and political voices. Review the number of times women are cited as experts in science and technical fields in your own outlet, and I’ll bet you’ll find similar results.
These missing female voices resound loudly in their absence, just as Summers’ outdated hypotheses have influence despite their lack of validity. For one thing, they remind women studying science and math that they fight an uphill battle. Worse yet, when women face stereotypes about their skills, it actually harms their performance in a phenomenon called “stereotype threat,” according to Stanford University experimental psychologist Claude Steele.
Journalists often seek men to be sources not out of a willful dismissal of the talents of women, psychologists and sociologists suggest, but because of our own unconscious tendencies. In an effort to understand these processes, one team of researchers designed the Implicit Association Test, which can be taken online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. In its first year-and-a-half of public use, they found that no matter what people said they believed about sex roles, the 600,000 men and women who took the test were far more likely to associate women with liberal arts subjects and men with technical ones.
The best way to overcome such biases is to try consciously to contradict them whenever they pop up, said the test’s co-developer Anthony Greenwald, a social psychologist at the University of Washington. For journalists, this may require a deliberate effort to educate ourselves about the women who have achieved excellence in science, math and technology.
As a start, here are some resources:
• American Association for Women in Science, led by Elizabeth Ivey, a physicist (emerita) in acoustical engineering at the University of Hartford. The group’s Web site includes a variety of resources, including statistics, book reviews and a listing of fellows who top their fields.
• Association for Women in Mathematics is led by mathematician Barbara Lee Keyfitz, director of the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences in Ontario, Canada. The association’s home page is.
• Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, named after an accomplished operating systems engineer who began a network called Systers in 1987 to support women in the field. The Web site includes reports on women in technology, a speakers list and a rich offering of resources.
• The Association for Women in Computing has chapters throughout the country and features profiles of those who have won their Augusta Ada Lovelace award for technical and scientific achievement.
• And, of course, the Society of Professional Journalists’ own Rainbow Sourcebook and Diversity toolbox, offers biographical and contact information about experts in commonly covered news areas who come from groups historically underrepresented in the news.
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman.The Knight Foundation offers fellowships for journalists to attend weeklong sessions at the Salzburg Seminar on global issues.