The Journalism Gender Gap: Why Evaluating Equality by Subject Matter is Misleading

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 29 2012 6:15 PM

The Problem with “Pink Topics”

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If even women journalists’ advocates are buying into "pink topics," how can we expect less enlightened editors to assist with their dissolution?

Photography by Pixland.

A new study out today from The Op-Ed Project suggests that across all media, a man is still more likely than a woman to be making the news. After analyzing the bylines and content of over 7,000 stories from between Sep. 15, 2011 and Dec. 7, 2011, the group found that women were most often published in college and new media publications (like Slate), with 38 and 33 percent of articles respectively, and considerably less represented in traditional newspapers and magazines, authoring only 20 percent of the content in those pages. While the surveyors note that things have gotten somewhat better in the Op-Ed sections of major outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, progress towards truly equal representation behind the news desk is disappointingly slow.

Interested readers should check out the Op-Ed Project’s blog for further discussion of the results, but one element worth drawing out here is their focus on “Pink Topics.” Here’s the definition:

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…“Pink” topics are the topical spheres that compose what some media critics refer to as the “pink ghetto” because women have historically been confined within them. We’ve defined a Pink Topic as: 1.) anything that falls into what was once known as “the four F’s”: food, family (relationships, children, sex), furniture (home), and fashion, 2.) women-focused subject matter, e.g. woman-specific health or culture, 3.) gender / women’s issues, or 4.) a profile of a woman or her work in which her gender is a significant issue of the piece.

Now, history clearly shows that many talented women writers have been relegated to what we might generally call “lifestyle” pieces or otherwise “soft” journalism, so I understand the surveyors’ interest in testing this category. However, the distinction between, say, “woman-specific health or culture” and serious politics is not at all apparent. Much of the writing that I (a man) and my colleagues (mostly women) do in DoubleX seems explicitly political to us, but by the metric of “Pink Topics,” we don’t count.

The authors of this report are obviously on the side of women, but I can’t help but feel that the crude distinction among subject matter actually enacts the same kind of stereotyping and pigeon-holing that it seeks to critique. If even women journalists’ advocates are buying into these arbitrary boundaries, how can we expect less enlightened editors to assist with their dissolution? 

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.