Where the Boys Are

As a woman who is lucky enough to graduate college in 2014, I’m proud and optimistic. Our voices are roaring, especially in politics, where there is no shortage of exciting female newsmakers. Just Wednesday night, former President Clinton shared the DNC stage with Massachusettes Senate Candidate Elizabeth Warren and women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke. Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a speech in which she continued to define for a generation of girls what it means to be a woman of strength and feeling. Republican Convention strategists gave the podium to even more female speakers last week, including a former secretary of state that may very well run for president in four years.

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses Democratic delegates Tuesday.

But for women reporting politics, the landscape is not quite as promising. According to a study by the Women’s Media Center and 4thEstate.net, print media coverage of the 2012 Election has been done mostly by men. Their findings show that since Rick Santorum dropped out of the GOP race, male journalists have written a whopping 72% of the print stories covering the campaign.

Reading the paper, the imbalance is striking. For every Helene and Annie writing about the DNC in today’s New York Times, there are five Peters and four Marks. I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. Wednesday’s “Election 2012” insert had only one article with a female in a byline, and that story was co-written by a man.

Ashley Parker is one of only a few women that cover politics for the Times.

4thEstate’s study speaks to larger and even more concerning issues than how many women are on the campaign trail. It appears that there is a startling disparity between male and female contributions not just to politics, but to many subjects that we tend to think of as “hard journalism.” The OpEd Project tells us that in opinion pieces women are still far more likely to write within the umbrella of topics that we have traditionally covered, including fashion, food, education, gender, and family.  Somewhat insultingly, they refer to these subjects as “Pink Topics.” As you can see in the chart below, politics, economics, media, and security all remain the provinces of men.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that the few political stories that are covered by female journalists hone in on “social” topics like abortion, contraception, and women’s rights, according to 4thEstate. We might call these the “Pink Issues” of the election.

Over at Slate’s DoubleX Blog, Emily Bazelon suggests that this kind of gender specific focus is actually a good thing. “There’s nothing frivolous or ghetto-ized about those topics,” Bazelon writes, asserting that things like abortion and women’s rights are at the “center of this election, right where they should be.”

So women may be writing about the important stuff, but the fact remains that they’re not doing most of the writing. How can we compete with the boys if we aren’t even in the game? What are we as a society losing without female perspectives on the trail? This is bigger than women’s rights. If more women were reporting politics, it seems possible that more women would also be used as sources, allowing journalists to get closer to the truth and improving journalism as a trade.

And just where does the breakdown happen? It’s natural that women, like Bazelon herself, decline assignments that would take them away from home for months at a time. But how much of the gender gap is actually coming from editing, and the “arbitrary boundaries” that still limit female journalists? Were those boundaries pre-established when those writers were children, realizing suddenly that all of their History and Civics teachers were men?

Like almost every college class I’ve taken, my Journalism courses are overwhelmingly female. The young women in the seats surrounding me are inquisitive and ambitious, and our discussions are dominated by their thoughts. Which of these voices will I get to hear in five years? In ten? In twenty? All I can hope is that I hear some.


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