NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote recently that NPR "needs to try harder to find more female sources and commentators." She investigated NPR's stats and found them pretty lopsided. We wondered ... why so few women? So we asked blogger, professor and man Clay Shirky to posit his theory.
Stoney StreetArtist: by Amon Tobin
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a recent column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard asks: where are the women? Shepard monitored NPR’s flagship shows, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered, to determine how often NPR uses women as commentators or sources in its stories. She acknowledged that her study wasn't scientifically perfect, but the results were so lopsided she was sure she was onto something. For example, she found that only 26 percent of the sources in NPR stories were women. And NPR is by no means alone. Many media outlets have tried, and failed, to integrate more women and minorities as sources and commentators. Nor has On the Media covered itself in glory on that score. So why is that? Reason one, laziness. We have our rolodex of reliable sources and why fix a system that ain't broke? Reason two, failure to realize that a system that breeds such complacency is broke. And reason three, fewer females in the pundit pool. One person who’s paid a lot of attention to that last issue is NYU professor Clay Shirky. He wrote a blog post earlier this year called A Rant About Women. Clay, welcome back to the show.
CLAY SHIRKY: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, first of all, let's both acknowledge the irony in our inviting you –
CLAY SHIRKY: Thank you. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - a man, on the show to talk about why women are underrepresented in the media. [LAUGHS]
CLAY SHIRKY: I duly acknowledge [that]. There was recently a panel at a conference on what can men to do to get more women in tech, and the panel was entirely male.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And the irony of that was, was lost evidently on the conference organizers, but not on the audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] We decided to go with you because earlier this year you did this very public thing; it got a lot of attention. Why did you write your rant?
CLAY SHIRKY: I wrote the rant – and I wrote it as a rant, not as a thoughtful, well-considered article but just as a rant - because I felt like I had to blow my stack about what I was seeing happen with my students when they entered the workforce. Within the Interactive Telecommunications Program, where I teach, you would not walk into that environment and think: oh my goodness, the men are so much more talented than the women. But when those students get out to the world, I see a sorting out that happens along gender lines. And I think at least part of it is that women are not being aggressive enough about saying: I can do that, my work is good, I'm applying for that grant, I'm asking for this recommendation, I'm raising my hand. I'm taking a risk in public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you cite a great example. One of your students, a woman, once wrote to a reporter promoting her own work, and she got an interesting response. Can you tell that story?
CLAY SHIRKY: Yeah. This is the smartest student I've ever had at the Interactive Telecommunications Program. And she hid her light under a bushel when she was a student there. She went on to do graduate work at Columbia. She hid her light under a bushel there. And then one day she said, you know what, I'm done with that. I'm going to start to tell people how good this work is, because she started seeing mediocre male colleagues getting more recognition for their work than she was getting for her own work. And so, a reporter was going around asking about game design and game theory, and Jessica, my student, said: my work is awesome; you should write about me. And the reporter wrote back and said: I've taken a look at it. Your work is indeed awesome. I will, indeed, write about you. But I also have to tell you, you are the only woman to put yourself forward. Women put each other forward, men put women forward, men put themselves forward. Women never put themselves forward. So -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write, “Not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerks.”
CLAY SHIRKY: Right.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I said it then, I believe it now. I think the concern for how other people think about you is one of the sources of essentially work paralysis among women. One of the big [LAUGHS] skills that you need, and my institution does not do a good job of inculcating this in women – there are not enough institutions that do – one of the big skills is to be able to do what you want to do without caring what other people think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have to acknowledge the fact that when women put themselves out there, they're called “biatches.” The word “shrill” is applied to them. They are not called “leaders.” They are not called “strong.”
CLAY SHIRKY: That is right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They're called “strident - hags.”
CLAY SHIRKY: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it’s a pain in the - butt.
CLAY SHIRKY: The single biggest mistake I made in that rant was not to acknowledge that fact. It’s true. I knew it was true when I wrote it. I didn't say it, and it was dumb. The reason I think women should get better at behaving like arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerks, when the situation calls for it, isn't that it will work as well as it works for men, because women are indeed more punished for putting themselves forward than men are, but the reason I think that women should do that more is that they will get more of the kind of success they imagine for themselves than if they don't do it, even given the unfairness of the discrimination they face, itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write, “Women aren't just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks, they are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can't say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.” What was the reaction to that?
CLAY SHIRKY: A number of people have said, oh, thank you for this, I think this is exactly right. And a number of people have said, you should never write on this subject in public –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - again because you are so obviously and voluminously wrong. I'll tell you though, the reaction that has surprised me most is that any number of people, many of them women, have come forward and said, essentially, women have a different way of getting along in the world, we're more social, we're more nurturing, and so forth. And I have two problems with that attitude. The first is, essentially, that if you flowered up the language a little bit, you could dump that into a Victorian almanac. And the second is that all of that kind of nurturing, social junk imagines that the best role we can imagine for women in the workplace is as kind of middle-management mommies, right? They don't get to found the company. They don't get to run the company. Maybe someday they can be senior vice-president of marketing, but mostly they're there in this kind of middle layer of management to keep things running.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was your reaction to the findings of the NPR ombudsman? Have you got any guesses, based on your experience as a media consultant and in academia, as to why this is the case at NPR and so many other news outlets?
CLAY SHIRKY: I think the list you went through at the beginning, all of the various reasons that you just go for the slots, is exactly right. I think the only thing I might add to the list is that the dialectical model of radio, where you get two strongly opposing voices, favors people who put themselves forward and say, I will express a point of view with absolute clarity, even if it turns out to be wrong, because that makes good radio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Certainty, it’s a wonderful thing.
CLAY SHIRKY: Yep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if it’s entirely unjustified.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right, “male answer syndrome.”
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Yeah, one of the great ways to find out whether or not you’re completely wrong is to behave as if you’re completely right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your view, what is the impact of having so many more male voices as experts and sources than women?
CLAY SHIRKY: I think one of the big impacts is that the male voice is what expertise comes to sound like. And so, even from someone who doesn't go in with a formally sexist bias about whether men are more expert than women in general, you may just unconsciously flip through to those parts of the rolodex. Someone somewhere has to say, we have to change the fact of the representation before we change people’s mental model of what expertise sounds like because if we just wait, we will always lag the cultural change rather than leading it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clay, thank you so much.
CLAY SHIRKY: Thank you, Brooke. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clay Shirky is a professor at New York University and author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.