Want to See More Women Writers in The New York Times?

If The New York Times—or any other publication—wants to include more women as writers and sources, here’s simply what it has to do: Pay attention.

As the Ms. Blog reported in early August, a recently launched website, Who Writes for the New York Times, keeps track of gender imbalances in a way that could help the Times’ editors achieve gender parity. The site provides an invaluable public service by counting, in real time, how many men and how many women have authored pieces that appear on the newspaper’s online front page.

Says Andrew Briggs, creator of Who Writes

The monolithically male voice of The New York Times is something we all need to talk about. The site acts as a daily reminder that the … voices who speak to us represent a very small slice of the pie. … I built the system to be an automaton: It’s this small wind-up toy in a corner of the Internet that looks at the home page of the NYT every five minutes and records what it sees. … The site will keep running as long as I let it and keep paying the bills.

Like a blood pressure monitor or cardiogram, the site reveals either health or dysfunction. Briggs’ aspirations for the site are similar to those of a doctor: He wants the “patient” to improve.

I would like to see more women featured by The New York Times, and the system will know if and when that happens. More than that, I would like to see more investigation into and discussion about the mechanisms that define what we consume. Decisions are being made for us and, generally, I don’t think we ask ‘Why?’ enough.

The Times has long been criticized for representing so few women journalists on its front pages. When it comes to sources, the paper’s gender bias looks even worse. Alexi Layton and Alicia Shepard took a look at the female-male ratio to see who gets cited in news stories and published their findings last month:

In an analysis of 352 front-page stories from the Times in January and February 2013, we found that Times reporters quoted 3.4 times as many male sources as female sources.

A spokesperson for the paper, associate managing editor for standards Phil Corbett, expressed disappointment at how wide the gap was, and said the Times wants to do better:

This situation illustrates the importance of pushing for a more diverse newsroom—in gender, race and ethnicity, background, religion and other factors—which remains a priority for us.

Corbett didn’t offer a plan for improvement, however. Instead, he noted that reporters on deadline tend to rely on sources they already know, and worried that instituting quotas would be a “blunt instrument that could create as many problems as it solves.”

Paying attention to how many women and men write for and are cited by the Times is not a blunt instrument. Rather, as a prelude to change, paying attention ensures that gender equity becomes a genuine priority and not merely a hypothetical one. As sociologist Allan G. Johnson notes, notes:

[P]atterns of oppression and privilege are rooted in systems that we all participate in and make happen. Those patterns are built into paths of least resistance that we feel drawn to follow every day, regardless of whether we think about where they lead or the consequences they produce.

Put another way, doing the same thing you’ve been doing and hoping for different results is a recipe for failure. If the The New York Times wants to change, then editors must be proactive.

They might take a lesson from a story reported in their own pages. Jodi Kantor’s report on Harvard Business School’s impressive efforts to bring about gender equity in a traditionally male-dominated environment used this technique: Stenographers in classrooms kept records of which students spoke in class; faculty were asked to keep notes on sessions as reminders of what actually took place; and an effort was made to put women in the spotlight. The results were striking. Within three years of paying attention and not taking the path of least resistance, the grade gap between women and men “vaporized,” and according to sources Kantor interviewed for the article, “the school had become a markedly better place for female students.”

Two years ago, Ms. celebrated when Jill Abramson ascended to the top editorial position at The New York Times and became the newspaper’s first woman executive editor. It was one of those landmark appointments, a high-water mark in a field that has been notoriously bad about making room for women. But change at the top doesn’t automatically alter the ways of an entire organization.

Solving gender imbalances takes daily work—the kind of work an individual might put into breaking a bad habit. It’s not enough to say you want to change; you need to look in the mirror, acknowledge your shortcomings and take action.

What other actions would you suggest that the Times and other top publications take to narrow the gender gap?

Detail of an 1895 advertisement for The New York Times from Wikimedia Commons


Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.