Byline Counting project: Data and solutions

By Diana Steele

The Byline Counting Project panel generated a lively discussion between panelists and audience members about the lack of gender parity in science feature writing. The project demonstrated that career-making marquee features are heavily dominated by male writers.

Nearly 30 volunteers counted bylines in 11 publications for eight months and divided the writers by gender.

The full results and list of publications are available on The Open Notebook website. While the total numbers of men and women writing science articles were nearly equal, the lengths of the articles differed. Male writers dominated the features in nearly all the publications. Women writers wrote more short news stories (<500 words) and were nearly at parity in longer, non-feature stories, but in long features the differences were often dramatic: 81.2% were written by men in Scientific American, and 73.4% were written by men in Wired, for example.

The only publication surveyed where female outnumbered male feature writers was the New York Times science section.

The panel was organized by Katharine Gammon and Cynthia Graber, who invited three editors to participate: Jamie Shreeve, deputy editor-in-chief at National Geographic; Adam Rogers, articles editor at Wired; and NASW President Laura Helmuth, health, science and environment editor at the Washington Post.

"We were all embarrassed," at the data, said Wired’s Rogers, "and we should be." He added, "We see who is on the masthead and who we are writing the stories about (white men with beards) and we asked ourselves, ‘what do we do about a masthead that is so very "dude-y?"’"

"I think the data were super clarifying. Even though we know that more and more women are in science writing," said Helmuth, whose publication was not included in the study, "It seems that there are all these ‘dudes’ who get all the glory."

She added, "Thank you for doing this and it took a tremendous amount of effort. It’s a huge contribution to our community to have this data and to see exactly where the problems were."

Shreeve had prepared a presentation of his own, showing some improvement already underway at National Geographic. He pointed out that National Geographic has been a "bastion of white male journalism" for 128 years, and the gender ratio of writers in 1966 was 93% men and 7% female. In 2015, when the byline counting project was completed, the ratio was 3 to 1.

Under the leadership of a woman editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, the assignment editors have already improved their gender ratio in feature articles. Shreeve added, "I’ve been proud that I’ve brought a number of new women writers to the magazine" in the past decade, and he thought, "I’m not the problem." But when he examined his own record in detail, it didn’t reflect his perception. "I have brought in a lot of female writers," he said, "but I brought in twice as many male writers in the same time period. I was counting the female writers; I wasn’t counting the men."

"If you don’t have a diverse newsroom, you miss stories," said Rogers. Added Helmuth, "Every story we miss because of having a monoculture of writers is embarrassing."

No one had clear causes for the disparity, but panelists and audience members offered a number of hypotheses. Perhaps:

  • We get more pitches from male writers.
  • Internally generated stories are more often assigned to men.
  • There is more flexibility in terms of travel for male writers.
  • There is an unseen bias in determining a writer’s potential for excellence.
  • It reflects who is making the decisions in the newsroom.

Helmuth said, "It is definitely not a pipeline problem."

Rogers and Helmuth both noted that editors need to be more conscious of the hidden messages they are sending in their responses to pitches.

"The language I use now," said Rogers, is, ‘This story is not right for Wired.’ At the bottom I will write, ‘I would like to see other pitches from you.’ Men read that and think, ‘he’s interested,’ and women read that and think, ‘he’s just being polite.’"

As for what to do about it, the editors agreed that having the data was enormously helpful. National Geographic is basically taking "an affirmative action" approach, said Shreeve. Helmuth suggested that byline diversity be included in an editor’s performance review.

Writers have a role as well. "The people who pitch most consistently without apologizing, and constantly negotiate for more money, are usually male," said Helmuth. "When you pitch, always ask for more money, always ask for more length, always ask for more of a fee." And "don’t take rejection personally, bounce back and pitch again."