Counting bylines will tell us nothing about gender distribution

On Sunday, Guardian writer Kira Cochrane published the results of a study, supposedly into women’s representation in the media. By ‘the media’ she meant the media industry rather that the way women are represented through the media. So we’re talking about journalists, not stories.

However, as it turns out, she wasn’t really looking at journalists either. What she was doing was counting bylines. Since the results and her feature came out, Twitter has been going mad, talking about how amazing and illuminating it is. Except… it really isn’t.

Here’s the problem: She counted bylines in seven national newspapersas well as reporters and named contributors on Radio 4’s Today Programme. She also counted guests appearing on newsy TV panel shows such as Question Time, Mock The Week, Have I Got News For You, and Any Questions? (of which more later). The aim of this was to demonstrate the gender imbalance in journalism. Actually what it does is demonstrate the gender imbalance among credited writers on seven British newspapers and a radio show.

My grievances with this are twofold. First, to suggest that these news outlets are in some way the ‘main’ ones is to devalue the work being done by journalists elsewhere. But it also completely fails to recognise the significance of different kinds of news and different kinds of  publications. Circulation figures alone tell us that some of the most popular outlets for information on public life are women’s mags.

You see, prominent as they may be, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Telegraph, The Sun, The Independent and The Times do not make up the entirety of the British media. In terms of sales, they don’t even make up the top five. OK! Magazine, for example, has a circulation of over 450,000, on a par with The Times and almost twice that of The Guardian. And don’t even get me started on The Indie. More people buy the BBC’s Top Gear Magazine than buy the Independent (though admittedly their gender balance is probably not dissimilar). Then there’s the regionals, trade publications, specialist magazines, not to mention the Sunday papers and their supplements, none of which are counted. Yes, it’s disappointing to learn that on the best-known British newspapers male bylined writers outnumber female ones by almost 4:1 but these publications barely make up a slice of the pie, let alone the whole pudding menu.

Presumably Kira chose these publications because… well, if we’re honest it’s probably because they’re the ones the Guardian features desk buy in every day. But that doesn’t mean they are the only places that journalism occurs. Nor are credited writers the only kinds of journalists.

There are lot more people involved in putting together a newspaper than those whose names appear on stories. What about section editors, subs, picture desk? An awful lot goes on behind the scenes and to use publicly credited work as the measuring device seems arbitrary and wrong. If you told me you were looking into bylines as part of a study into the kinds of work men and women do in the media, it’d be a different story. That I could get excited about.

In 2006 Sphinx Theatre Company did a survey of gender distribution in theatre. Not only was it genuinely illuminating but it was and remains an oft-cited source. They had statistics on fringe theatre, regional, rep and London theatre buildings and all the major theatre companies in the UK. When it came to employment figures, they looked at the whole company, from artistic director down to the cleaners. It quickly became clear that women were frequently administrators, cleaners, caterers, sometimes stage managers, sometimes costume designers but very rarely directors, actors, writers, set designers, or lighting designers. It produced a very clear picture of what was wrong with the industry, namely that women facilitated the creativity of men.

Could the same be happening in the media industry? It’s entirely possible but we would need a far more comprehensive study to draw conclusions from.

In the end though, one of the reasons I felt so infuriated with these statistics is that the supposed 80/20 split just isn’t familiar to me. Perhaps I’ve been fortunate in my experience but I have always felt that journalism was one of the more equal professions out there. A cursory glance around my (alter ego’s) office earlier today revealed 17 men and 29 women. And yes, I do work for one of the publications surveyed. Admittedly not all of the desks were full and for some reason there was no one on the sports desk but still, hardly male-dominated.

To return briefly to the question of panel shows, I don’t dispute how interesting it is to note the lack of female panelists but this is a separate issue. Guests on TV shows are, for the larger part not journalists so to take those stats and lump them in with the others under the heading ‘public life’ is just bizarre.

To be fair, Kira herself acknowledges that her method has its flaws. And in and of itself, counting bylines isn’t necessarily a pointless exercise. It is an interesting study but ultimately it is not one that cannot be referenced or cited in any way as evidence – let alone lauded as ‘amazing’ – because it is just too thin. What we can hope is that this brief glance at some of the issues within the media industry will prompt a wider, more thorough search.

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