ICYMI: Worried about bias at Facebook? Then worry about this, too.

I wrote a column for USA Today last week exploring why Facebook’s political leanings should be one small part of a broader conversation about the demographics of the people building the social web.  Here’s an excerpt:

Anyone troubled by the notion of bias at Facebook …  should also be upset by its lack of diversity and the homogeneous workforces of many tech companies. These cornerstones of the social web play significant roles in determining what is and isn’t news. If the default worker is white, male, straight and liberal, that increases the risk that journalism’s future will repeat the mistakes of its past.

Read the whole thing here.

The one with spoilers. So, so many spoilers

My first byline of the year is on this column for USA Today about the many feminist plot points in the new Star Wars movie. It was a lot of fun to write, and my mom got to dig up a photo of kindergartner me wearing a fantastically DIY Princess Leia costume.

princess leia
Getting my girl power on circa 1983. 

The response to the column has been robust and interesting. Here are some of the highlights:

First, strong female role models matter for boys and men, too. For more, check out this great piece by Mike Adamick. And those kinds of characters need to be available on and off the screen. That’s not always the case as evidenced by the blight of female action figures in games and play sets.

Second, one mind-bogglingly successful movie with kick-ass female characters and feminine framing is great – but pop culture remains a boys’ club. This Forbes article provides a good primer, pointing out that “gender discrimination, both in front of and behind the camera and in terms of the kind of stories that get told in cinema, has become so pervasive that the ACLU and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stepped in to investigate.”

Finally, this conversation is about a lot more than space-nerd gossip. Stories matter because they’re one of the chief ways kids learn about social norms and the human condition. Here’s an easy-to-understand rundown of the latest research about the power of narrative in child development.



Where are the (emoji) women?

Earlier this year, I was pleased when my phone offered me the option of assigning different skin tones to the tiny faces I often include in text messages. Score one, I thought, for diversity in digital culture.

What I missed, though, was another subtle bias in this fast growing communication tool: There are very few emojis depicting professional women. As Mic’s Sophie Kleeman points out:

Women who want to use something other than a neutral female emoji have the following options to choose from: a princess, a bride, twins that resemble Playboy bunnies, a dancer in a red dress and a series of “information desk person” characters… Men get the “serious” professional roles, and women get the “girlie” ones.

As Kleeman goes on to explain, this isn’t the most pressing feminist issue out there – but I still think it’s important. Emojis are becoming a bigger part of our digital lives, and it’s problematic if they don’t allow us to properly express a full range of female experiences. Or at least as full a range as is possible with itty-bitty cartoons.

Abramson aftermath

I have no idea what caused the firing of Jill Abramson and, unless your name is Arthur Sulzberger, neither do you. So I’m not going to opine on why it happened or what it means. It is, however, worth reviewing the conversation that’s followed her ouster. Here are three things I’ve learned in the last week:

1.) Female journalists get paid less than male journalists. An Indiana University survey — cited in this release from the Pew Research Center — found that women working in news have salaries about 83 percent lower than their male peers. Amanda Bennett, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, explains how this can still be true:

I have managed at five organizations over nearly 20 years. At each of them I saw women paid less than men in what I thought were identical positions. Was everyone lying who said they were committed to equal pay? I came to believe not. It was worse than that. It became clear that we saw things differently. I saw two people who, I believed, were doing the same work but being paid unequally. Those above me saw a story and a history, something that they thought caused the man to deserve higher pay: This one had just stepped down from a senior position and taken his higher pay with him. That one had been hired from a higher-paying organization. Yet another had been offered a job with a competitor. How many women in the past decade have been promoted past their peers, only to see in the spreadsheets the sad evidence that their own stories were apparently not as persuasive?

In the days since the Abramson story broke, I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by female journalists in my networks. For many, this feeling of worthlessness caused them to leave leadership jobs they loved or abandon journalism altogether.

2.) There’s something called the “glass cliff and it makes life as a female editor really, really hard. Susan Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine, has another name for the dynamic: editing while female.

There are shockingly few women at the top anywhere in America, and it’s a deficit that is especially pronounced in journalism, where women leaders remain outliers, category-defying outliers who almost invariably still face a comeuppance…These women editors have done most of the things the professional women’s empowerment class recommends. But still, they were not really able to succeed. They—and I—remained stuck in a trap not of our own making. It’s called editing while female.

Other top female editors have written similar accounts in the last week. Here’s one from Kara Swisher and another by Amanda Wilson.

3.) Sexism in journalism extends far beyond the corner office. For some examples, check out this new Tumblr called Journalism While Female. It’s full of accounts from female reporters, editors and producers who have faced sexual harassment, discrimination and other gender-based problems on the job.

But, as the always amazing Robert Hernandez reminds us, the answer isn’t to give up. Instead, do the opposite. Entrench. Push back. Make them change:

Where the Women Are: Measuring Female Leadership in the New Journalism Ecology

Here she is: My thesis. Download, share, quote and ponder.

A huge thank you to the organizers of the Society of Professional Journalists’ New England chapter for inviting me to unveil my research at today’s conference. Here’s the slide deck from my talk:

And here are links to a few of the books, articles and people I mentioned in my talk:

Talking gender, journalism and the web on HuffPostLive

The HuffPostLive set as seen on my laptop.
The HuffPostLive set as seen on my laptop.

A big thanks to Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani and HuffPostLive for including me on a panel discussion about the online gender gap. My co-panelists were Madeline Earp from Freedom House, graduate student Tanya Lakot and Dr. Syb Bennett, a journalism professor at Belmont University. The full segment is archived here.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, take a few minutes to read Earp’s summary of the staggering gap between men and women when it comes to Internet access worldwide.  In addition to barriers to physical access, women are more likely to face censorship or harassment online.


Women were digital media pioneers, but there’s still a gender gap online

USA Today launched its first website just days before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and its staff helped create a new kind of crisis storytelling in the aftermath. Rapid updates, photos, and story indexes made the Web, for the first time in human history, a significant source of information for understanding national tragedy. Two years later, another major paper continued to shape our understanding of online news when a Web producer at Philly.com assembled the multimedia version of Black Hawk Down. On the West Coast, meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News unveiled Good Morning Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s, and it quickly became a popular proto-blog focused on the booming tech industry. (Read more at The Columbia Journalism Review.)