Counting Women In

Lynne Murray says:

The most useful course I ever took in college was Behavior Modification, and the professor’s motto was:”When you care, care enough to count.” He was satirizing the famous Hallmark Cards slogan, “When you care enough to send the very best.” What he meant was extremely important: If you want to change a behavior start by counting the number of times that behavior happens. That will give you a yardstick to measure change.

The first time I ran into this in the real world was when I encountered Sisters in Crime’s Review Monitoring Project, as described on their website:

[Sisters in Crime’s mission is]: giving women authors equity in the business of writing. Our loyal and thorough monitors check newspapers, magazines, and on-line review sites to take note of how the numbers are adding up. Are the reviewers talking about books written by women? Some of them are, but some of them definitely aren’t. It’s our job to make sure they realize what they’re doing and make them accountable.

We monitor over 60 publications, from dailies to quarterly review magazines. At the end of each quarter our monitors enter their numbers on an easy-to-use web site, and once the numbers are tallied we see how each publication is doing on the continuum of male reviews versus female reviews. Some media do very well. Some need work. But that’s why we’re here: to make sure women are reviewed as often as men.

Measuring tools can be very empowering. Lately I’ve found a few other media monitoring tools that appeal to me.

Despite the dispiriting numbers it reveals, the funnest one I know is one I just discovered–five years after it was originally suggested by Alison Bechdel in a 2005 Dykes to Watch Out For. It’s the Bechdel Test for movies, a nifty way to rate female presence in any movie:

To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie (or book or play or whatever) has to:

1. have at least two women in it
2. who talk to each other
3. about something besides a man.

This cute video clip demonstrates the test in action:

And here’s a site devoted to applying the test to current movies:

Much less fun, but very illuminating is the recent

“Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media” examining more than 500 companies in nearly 60 countries shows that men occupy the vast majority of the management jobs and news-gathering positions in most nations included in this study.

The International Women’s Media Foundation commissioned the study [the full 400-page report is available here] to closely examine gender equity in the news media around the world.

… researchers found that 73 percent of the top management jobs are occupied by men compared to 27 percent by women. Among the ranks of reporters, men hold nearly two-thirds of the jobs, compared to 36 percent held by women. However, among senior professionals, women are nearing parity with 41 percent of the news-gathering, editing and writing jobs. The new global study shows women in 26 percent of the governing and 27 percent of the top management jobs.

Amy King in “The Count 2010” at VIDA illustrated these journalistic inequities with pie charts showing percentages of articles by gender for top-ranking magazines in 2010. The VIDA count was enough of an eye-opener to inspire Ann Friedman, a contributing editor and columnist at The American Prospect, to create Lady Journos, which she describes as “…a one-stop shop for lazy editors who claim there aren’t many women journalists,” …

Lady Journos highlights the work of lesser-known women from publications including the New York Review of Books, Mother Jones, Wired, The Awl, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Foreign Policy. Friedman’s goal is clear: “Share these links, hire these writers, and help close the byline gender gap.” The site, well worth visiting, includes brilliant articles and some perspectives that don’t make it into mainstream media.

These principles don’t only apply to the gender gap; you can use the tools to look at race, age, ability, and just about any other way that marginalized groups are under-represented in the media, or the people who make the media.

3 thoughts on “Counting Women In

  1. I think many people forget that the Bedchel test is just a silly test. It does not indicate whether or not a movie is feminist or misogynic. It can serve as an interesting way to test the female presence of a movie but many people hold it as a be-all, end-all when it comes to the message of the film being pro or anti-women.

  2. That’s interesting, Crystal. I just encountered the Bechdel test and had no idea people placed such stress on it. I wouldn’t think of it as meaning that any given film had a positive or negative view of women. It seems to me more a matter of putting a spotlight on how infrequently women appear in movies as characters other than The Girlfriend or the object of the hero’s obsession.

  3. Yes, the Bechdel Test is useful for talking about how many films ignore women (and I admire it greatly), but if people are using it to evaluate a film’s overall value, I think they are misapplying it. Two compelling films I’ve seen in the last few years (A Single Man and The King’s Speech) fail the Bechdel Test while telling stories about well-imagined people interacting with each other in ways that gave me something to think about. And each of them had a female character far more interesting than the stock Hollywood girlfriend role.

    Even in a perfect film world where the Bechdel Test did not provide useful information, a world very different from the one we live in, not all worthy stories would pass the test.

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