Women’s voices are missing in online comments. Speak up!

speak-jpgNicolas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, encourages his readers to express their views on his commentaries. But where are the women? How many post their opinions?

Recently Kristof suggested that his readers look at a blog posting on his site by Emma Pierson, “How to get more women to join the debate.”  (Pierson is a student currently studying statistics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar with a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford University). She has discovered a major gender gap when reviewing comments made on The New York Times website.

Women were clearly underrepresented in my data. They made only a quarter of comments, even though their comments got more recommendations from other readers on average. Even when they did speak up, they tended to cluster in stereotypically “female” areas: they were most common on articles about parenting, caring for the old, fashion and dining. (Women got more recommendations than men on most of the sports blogs, but they still made, for example, only 5 percent of comments on the soccer blog.)

It seems unlikely that these effects are confined to The New York Times; studies of online commenting find broad signs of inequality. (While women are well-represented on some websites, like the image-sharing site Pinterest, these sites do not tend to focus on expressing and defending opinions. Online forums that do often have mostly male commenters: examples include Wikipedia edit pages, the social news site Reddit, and the question-answering sites Quora and Stack Overflow.)

These differences, according to Pierson, “may have profound implications for media, gender equality, and even our democracy.” She says, “When one gender is underrepresented, the views that are heard will not fairly represent the views that are held.”

She notes that even when the topic is sexual assault, the majority of comments come from men and the reason may be that women fear being harassed online. When women do comment, it tends to be in reference to typically “female” subjects such as parenting, fashion or caring for the elderly. But when people share a remark made by another, the comments from the women, even those written on a sports blog, are highly recommended and receive positive responses.

Pierson notes that most online comments do not win prizes for “profundity, and that

“…while we focus instinctively on how to get women to talk more, there’s another possibility: that men should talk less.”

She also offers some practical ways to encourage more women to add their comments to online forums:

There are also ways online newspapers specifically might increase female participation. Increasing the number of women writing articles might increase the number of women commenting on articles. Women are underrepresented among newspaper reporters, and in my data, articles written by women had a higher percentage of comments from women, even when I controlled for the section of the newspaper in which the article appeared. Telling women that their comments received more recommendations might also encourage them to comment more; previous studies have found that women are less likely than men to persist in commenting when their comments do not receive positive responses.

So women, follow Pierson’s advice, start tapping on those computer keys and “don’t worry too much about whether your comment is worthy of Cicero” or whether “your comment is inane.”

The bottom line: “Our democracy will function better if we get a gender-balanced sample of stupidity.”