Three years of monitoring gender representation in the media
Prashanth Rao, Lucas Chambers, and Maite Taboada
There is a gender gap in news reporting. That is an incontrovertible fact. The question our team posed, more than three years ago, was how much of a gap there is and how we can encourage news organizations to close it. That’s how the Gender Gap Tracker was born.
The Gender Gap Tracker collects and analyzes news stories from six English-language mainstream media organizations in Canada. Using state-of-the-art natural language processing techniques, we analyze the content of each news article, count how many men and women are mentioned and quoted, and provide a daily tally.
We started our data collection and analysis on October 1, 2018, and over the first three months, found that women were consistently quoted in the news far, far less than men — towards the end of 2018, women’s quotes constituted just 27% of the total number of quotes captured by our system. Over time, however, especially with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, we saw a recognizable uptick in the proportion of women quoted. Throughout 2021, we have observed that this has been a sustained upward trend, with quotes by women now tending toward 30% on average.
We are, however, still a long way away from parity. We decided to take a closer look at the reasons for the gender gap, by examining two more fine-grained statistics: the gender breakdown by profession and by topic of the article.
Breakdown by profession
The most quoted men and women in Canadian news are politicians. A staggering 65% of the top-100 sources every month are politicians (quotes by men and women combined). More worryingly, although, by unique persons quoted, the breakdown by gender of individual politicians quoted seem comparable (see table below), with 348 unique men and 315 unique women, the number of times those individuals are quoted is quite different (160,581 quotes by men vs. 44,059 by women). That is, the same article may quote a woman Minister once and a man Minister three times. A man and a woman are quoted, yes, but the man receives much more space.
Despite a gender-balanced cabinet at the federal level, Canada’s Parliament has been about 70% male in the last three federal elections. We know that journalists often default to official sources. When those are numerically imbalanced, women’s perspectives will be underrepresented.
Our analyses of the top-15 most quoted people per month show that we are slowly coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the height of the crisis in 2020, the top quoted women were invariably public health officers and ministers of health (federal or provincial). In the last three months, however, we have seen a change, with more politicians than health officers in the top women sources. The list for men is, on the other hand, always dominated by politicians.
An analysis by topics shows that women are consistently quoted more often when the topics are arts & entertainment, healthcare, and lifestyle. Men’s voices appear more often in articles about politics, business, and sports. This is, sadly, a picture we know all too well: women are presented in caregiving roles; men in leadership positions.
An upward trend?
The Gender Gap Tracker is a massive effort. To date, we have collected more than 1.5 million articles in English and French and extracted millions of quotes. We have seen two federal elections and six provincial elections in Canada and one presidential election in the United States. We have seen the top quoted sources reflect those events. We have seen topics change with the seasons and major world events unfold as told through the words of those being quoted. What has not changed substantially is the gender gap in media reporting, although we are optimistic about the upward trend in women representation.
Compared to three years ago, the positive news is that there is more awareness of the problem of (gender) representation in the media. The negative aspect is that we see more and more harassment of public-facing women, which could have a chilling effect on the willingness of women and other underrepresented groups to engage with the media and take positions of responsibility.
The Gender Gap Tracker cannot change the world. It only draws attention to the way the world is currently. Many efforts to increase gender representation in the media assume that the solution is to have more women in the type of public-facing positions that news stories tend to cover. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that more women are quoted in the media when their roles as caregivers and health professionals are centred in the public discourse. The solution may then be a combination of the two approaches: more women in leadership positions, but also more front-page news stories about care and relational work, the ‘soft’ infrastructure of society.
We characterize sources (people quoted) as men or women, implying a binary that we acknowledge is a gross simplification. We also understand that gender is but one form of diversity that we would like to see reflected in the news stories we read.
This three-year summary is a complement to the data we presented in two academic papers at the two-year mark:
- Rao, P. and M. Taboada (2021) Gender bias in the news: A scalable topic modelling and visualization framework. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence – Language and Computation 4(82). doi: 10.3389/frai.2021.664737.
- Asr, F.T., M. Mazraeh, A. Lopes, V. Gautam, J. Gonzales, P. Rao and M. Taboada (2021) The Gender Gap Tracker: Using Natural Language Processing to measure gender bias in media. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0245533.
Our team has also summarized results for the general public and for news organizations:
- Rao, P. and M. Taboada, and S. Graydon. “What we can learn from three years of data on the gender gap in news reporting”. Poynter. October 28, 2021.
- Taboada, M. “The coronavirus pandemic increased the visibility of women in the media, but it’s not all good news”. The Conversation. November 25, 2020.
- Chambers, L. and M. Taboada “Who is quoted and who is elected? Media coverage of political candidates”. Canadian Science Policy Centre. November 3, 2020.
- Taboada, M. and F. Torabi Asr. “Tracking the gender gap in Canadian media”. The Conversation. February 3, 2019.
- Translated as "Big data para analizar la brecha de género en la prensa".
Technical reports and code:
- The Gender Gap Tracker (2021). Code. https://github.com/sfu-discourse-lab/GenderGapTracker.
- Taboada, M. (2020) The Gender Gap Tracker System, December 2020 Report. Internal report, Simon Fraser University.
- Asr, F.T., M. Mazraeh, V. Gautam, J. Gonzales, A. Lopes, P. Rao and M. Taboada (2020) The Gender Gap Tracker System V5. Technical report, Simon Fraser University.
- Asr, F.T., M. Mazraeh, V. Gautam, A. Lopes and M. Taboada (2019) The Gender Gap Tracker System V3. Technical report, Simon Fraser University.
The Gender Gap Tracker is a joint initiative of Informed Opinions and Simon Fraser University, through the Big Data Initiative and the Discourse Processing Lab. Team members at SFU, present and past: Jillian Anderson, Fatemeh Torabi Asr, Lucas Chambers, Philip Chen, Philipp Eibl, Vagrant Gautam, Junette Gonzales, Alexandre Lopes, Mohammad Mazraeh, Prashanth Rao, Maite Taboada.