In a refreshingly candid piece in the New York Times, two reporters on the international desk tackle a persistent and exasperating problem: why there are so few female experts cited in articles about political science, foreign affairs, military conflict, global economics, and national security?
When reporters in their field look for sources of authority, they typically turn to traditional – and seemingly objective – sources such as think tanks, policy institutes and academia. Within those institutions, they look for high-profile senior experts who are quoted, speak at conferences, and are cited in academic papers.
But as Taub and Fisher explain, those sources are fundamentally skewed against women.
In the political sciences, for example, plenty of data shows how women’s reputation for expertise gets undermined.
Across the political science academic world, women cite their own work less than men do, a practice that begins in the early stages of their careers and creates a multiplier effect as time goes on. And men, who dominate the profession, often cite other men more than they cite women. The result: many more men gain professional kudos and prominence for their work.
What’s more, academic women overwhelming take on more committee work and other service that supports their departments, which absorbs time and energy but comes with few status rewards.
Gender bias also skews other sources of expertise.
As the journalists describe, reporters on deadline often turn to twitter for readily-accessible, authoritative sources. But given the frequency with which opinionated women on twitter and other platforms regularly receive abuse and threats, it’s no surprise many women aren’t willing to make themselves vulnerable on twitter. This too diminishes the pool of recognized, well-regarded female experts.
With so many gender biases baked into the system, how can journalists overcome them?
Taub and Fisher acknowledge it’ll take effort by a lot of different players. In the meantime, they’ve made a start by turning away from some of the traditional sources of expertise, and seeking out fresh faces whose work merits attention.
Yes, Taub and Fisher admit, it’s a struggle. The problems are embedded deep in our culture.
The bright side? When they do introduce female experts into their work, readers notice and appreciate it. The most rewarding feedback, they say, “comes from young professional women, who see encouragement amid the many obstacles they face.”
Guess what? Professional women at all ages – and all stages of their careers – appreciate it too.
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