Mind the Gap: Gender Imbalance in Science Journalism

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Moshe Reuveni
The Science Byline Counting Project found that 81 percent of features in Scientific American are written by men.

Where are the women? That is the question a team of volunteers sought to answer when they began the Science Byline Counting Project last year. A small team of counters tracked 11 major publications over eight months to see just how many women were writing for the most popular forums in science journalism.

 

While there is certainly room for improvement, the data revealed a surprising level of gender equity. In total, female authors wrote 855 articles while male authors wrote 867. Women’s bylines outnumbered men’s in six of the publications studied. Among the other five, the largest disparities were in The Atlantic and Wired, where men wrote 71.4 percent and 63.6 percent of pieces respectively.

 

Disparities emerged more clearly when the articles were categorized by length or topic. In all but two publications, women wrote the most short (less than 500 words) pieces. However, in longer works and feature stories, the gap was either slim or stark. In six of the publications there was near-perfect gender balance, while in the other five, men accounted for at least 70 percent of the pieces. Harper’s Magazine, for example, had a 50/50 ratio, while men wrote 81 percent of the features in Scientific American.

 

When organized by category, female authors contribute more or almost equally compared to their male counterparts in four out of seven categories, including environmental journalism, healthcare, and social sciences. Men lead by only a slim margin in the other categories.

 

So, where are the women? It seems they are publishing in certain outlets much more frequently than others. Publications seem either en route to a balanced gender ratio or very far off. In The New York Times’ Tuesday Science section for example, women dominated bylines in features and long pieces, a trend not observed elsewhere. Discover and Popular Science also boasted much narrower gender gaps and featured more women writers overall. The Atlantic, Scientific American, and the Smithsonian, however, published significantly more men than women across the board.

 

The study’s data has its limits, as its co-chairs admitted in the report. It cannot explain the reasons behind the gender disparity it observed, and the volunteers only accounted for print publications, thus excluding popular online-only forums like Buzzfeed and Nautilus. These numbers also should not exist in a vacuum; it would be useful to see if these numbers are an improvement on the past or merely maintenance of the status quo. Hopefully, the study will challenge the publications that fared the worst to be more proactive in including women’s voices in the future.