The Silence Heard Around the World

Women’s Underrepresentation in Online Comments a Problem for Democracy

By: Amanda Scott, Nov 20, 2018

There are an estimated 7.7 billion people in this world. Over 3 billion of those people utilize the Internet – a whole other world – to stay connected, exchange ideas, and laugh at funny cat videos.

So most of the world is plugged in, which is a tremendous feat considering where we were only 50 years ago (The Internet didn’t even exist if you were wondering where our technology was 50 years ago.). But when we go online, we’re still perpetuating the same power imbalances that existed 50 years ago: middle-aged white males dominate the landscape; theirs are the perspectives we read online in forums, on news sites, and in articles.

According to a study conducted by researcher Fiona Martin about New York Times comments and 15 of the highest traffic news sites worldwide concluded that women make up, at most, 35 percent and as low as 3 percent of commenters across high-engagement news sites from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Denmark. 

In 2014, researcher Emma Pierson studied comments on New York Times articles from June 2013 to January 2014. Pierson found only 27.7 percent of commenters of identifiable gender were female. Of the 144 forums with more than 100 comments Pierson examined, females were the majority of commenters in only five forums.

 

Again, women make up at most 35 percent of commenters on news sites. Less than half.

What men and women have to say is inherently different – are you familiar with the saying “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus?” Men and women look at issues differently; they are affected by issues and decisions differently.

Naturally, and maybe a little stereotypically, men and women consume different subjects and topics online. For instance, Pierson noticed women dominated topics relating to parenting, fashion and health while men dominated topics relating to sports and science.

However, Pierson made a striking discovery: when commenting on the same article, there was a pattern of differing perspectives. Each gender found topics worth emphasizing within the same piece. Pierson’s study revealed that women were more likely to use phrases related to family, education and healthcare. Women also were more likely to use female-specific words and phrases relating to issues which disproportionately affect women, such as birth control and domestic violence.

So, why are women so silent when they share issues that are vital to democratic discourse?

The fear of harassment and abuse that runs rampant online? Incivility? Privacy concerns? Peer pressure? Do women find it unappealing? Do they think it’s unimportant? Who knows exactly? It’s probably a mixture of these and varies from one woman to another.

A universal truth though, valuable views are going unvoiced and will continue to do so until there is a way to address this alarming silence.