Gender representation in the media: New study shows disparity in opinion pieces about socio-legal tech policy

According to this study on gender representation in opinion pieces on socio-legal tech policy, only roughly 26 percent were authored by women. The study also found that the same authors were contributing to multiple publications, which prevents greater diversity of perspectives

Sapni G Krishna and Priyanshi Dixit June 16, 2020 09:32:49 IST
Gender representation in the media: New study shows disparity in opinion pieces about socio-legal tech policy

Equality in gender representation is yet to find meaningful manifestation in all facets of the society. Conversations around various spheres must be gender-inclusive, failing which the consequences will be biased against those who are left out. The domain of technology and its latest ‘innovations’ indicate that there exists an inherent gender bias, calling for a more inclusive discourse. The media must act to position the opinions of marginalised genders that work in this domain at an equal level as men. r-TLP conducted an integrated quantitative study to analyse gender representation through opinion pieces on the intersection of technology, law, policy and society, across online media platforms.

Although there is an overwhelming majority that likes to believe the gender gap in opportunities is not pervasive, these results show otherwise.

To understand the extent of diversity, we initiated this study, taking into consideration opinion pieces on socio-legal technology policy published by nine major online media platforms. Although currently restricted at an analysis through the lens of gender representation, we hope to enhance it through other nuances, such as the interplay of caste, in future parts of the study. The enhanced report will also attempt at understanding the method through which media houses and their teams look at the issue of representation.

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The reality of our times is the opaqueness of the law making system. Our country’s legislators remain minimally accessible to the general public when it comes to engagement. Although policies on Pre-Legislative Consultation exist, the adherence to such policies is scant. The structure of the political system in India renders involvement through the political process inaccessible to many.

The lack of avenues for civic engagement in the political system is bridged by the fourth estate in commendable ways. They provide a platform to initiate discussions between the experts in the field, budding enthusiasts and the policymakers, through opinion pieces. Many of these discussions have the potential to shape the approach taken in regulatory practices and legislation. The media also has the capacity to define the contours of public understanding and discourse on the effects of actions by State and non-State bodies on everyday life.

In the area of technology policy and regulation, it becomes important to acknowledge the contribution by commentators, as the sphere is highly dynamic. The internet and online media in particular drive much of these discussions. They are referred to by people to deepen their knowledge. Their easy accessibility and continuous output tags them as reliable sources. However, it is necessary that these discussions cover multiple perspectives and be inclusive, warranting comments and opinions from diverse groups of people.

Data on representation

Our research was focused on opinions/opinion pieces written by author/s that were specifically attributed to them individually over the period ranging from 1 June, 2017 to 31 May, 2020. The choice of platforms for this research was based on the popularity of these media houses. Publications were analysed based on search results using tags within websites, as well as scrolling through pages of opinion pieces that fit the relevant bracket. The total number of articles that finally formed the database was 984. In this attempt, we exempted articles under bylines of institutions, as well as the ones attributed to teams that work for these platforms.

Gender representation in the media New study shows disparity in opinion pieces about sociolegal tech policy

Upon an analysis of the gender identity of the authors to whom these 984 articles were attributed, we found 727 males, 255 females and one Butch.

Gender representation in the media New study shows disparity in opinion pieces about sociolegal tech policy

When we considered these media houses individually, the general gender disparity was perceptible. While some fared well, the others had a large gender gap. Eight out of the nine media houses analysed showed a difference, with considerably higher numbers of male authors getting bylines.

Gender representation in the media New study shows disparity in opinion pieces about sociolegal tech policy

Gender representation in the media New study shows disparity in opinion pieces about sociolegal tech policy

An interesting pattern was noticed with regard to female authors’ articles: a higher ratio of them were re-publications/cross-publications, as compared to the male counterparts. Additionally, most of the republications were from non-Indian females. The observation concluded was that there is a noticeable gap in opportunity when it comes to original articles for Indian females on the select online media platforms, as compared to their male counterparts.

Gender representation in the media New study shows disparity in opinion pieces about sociolegal tech policy

Another noticeable pattern we came across was the contributions made by the same authors across platforms. To calculate this, we considered the authors who contributed more than five times in the dataset. The result proves a considerable domination of certain voices repeatedly, preventing greater diversity. Such repetition prevents the reach of newer and diverse perspectives. It hinders the objective of improved civic engagement.

Possible reasons for disparity in representation

According to various studies that focus on understanding the gender disparity in the areas of article writing and publishing, it is proven that most of the reasons stem from underlying patriarchal norms, lying in the age-old social disparity between men and other marginalised genders, where it was easier for a man to voice his opinion and participate in a public debate. Further, the fact that such writing and publishing is rooted in the concept of productivity signals the absence of an equivalent leisure of time for women. That most men do not have to take charge in domestic settings after office hours – the ‘second shift’ that countless working women do – could be the possible foundation underlying this existing gap.

It is also a widely seen practice, especially in the legal profession, that the contribution of the juniors who have worked just as much on a project is given little or no attribution. As bylines are attributed to the big name, it leads to a skew in the representation, invisibilising those who are new to the profession. Although the information that an author wants to voice out is published, the attribution skews the effect of such work.

The support provided by various institutions working in this space could also add to the possibility of getting a byline. It brings in an innate perception bias, which could work against independent authors working without the support of big names in the sector, which was a recognisable trend from the database. A similar perception bias may also function on the basis of gender, as men are perceived to be better equipped in technology, as well as decision making.

As we recognise the existence of a disparity, we understand that the difference might not be associated with active editorial decisions. The above mentioned reasons are so deeply entrenched into the system that weeding them out is a strenuous task. Further, not conforming to these set notions might create the fear of reduction in the functional reader-base, which challenges the survival and reach of these platforms. It could also stem from the fact that the reader-base formed over the years expects the media house to conform to set notions and commission male writers they have always been associated with; thereby, ensuring readers remain loyal becomes a concern.

Possible solutions

It is necessary that platforms introspect and pay attention to the disparity in representation that exists within. It is pertinent to analyse editorial and commissioning decisions, particularly in emerging fields such as tech, and devise techniques to address the disparity. Methods such as undertaking analyses of pitch-to-publication ratio and the differences across gender in them could help. Further, proactive steps can be taken while commissioning pieces, to include diverse and broader perspectives. Since institutional backing plays an important role in pushing for articles by employees, the onus to re-evaluate lies on institutions as well. The benefits of having such diverse perspectives involves better formulation of policy, as well as increased trust in the systems that enable democratic functioning.

Bridging the existing disparity demands these platforms make themselves more accessible, specifically to marginalised genders. The impact of having such voices will help prevent previously made mistakes of exclusionary frameworks, that led to faulty ground rules in other sectors.

robos of Tech Law and Policy (r-TLP) aims to improve the representation of marginalised genders in the intersection of technology, law, policy and society by providing a platform to voice their opinion. Sapni G Krishna and Priyanshi Dixit are final year law students and founding editors of r-TLP.

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