'Sources,' 'Experts,' and 'Area Man': Why News Stories Favor Male Voices

April 13, 2018 | Jessica Ogilvie

When you’re reading a news story, whether it’s about politics or business or food trucks, usually the sources quoted are highly placed: talk to the mayor, the CEO, or the guy driving the truck. It makes sense from an organizational standpoint: those are, after all, the people most likely to be current on a given topic, and they’re also the people who are most likely to respond to media and make time for an interview. But there’s a problem: In most industries, the people who hold those positions are overwhelmingly male.

It’s a problem that touches all industries, from creative businesses like film companies to tech and female-founded startups. (A recent study, for example, found that startups headed by all-female teams received just 2.2 percent of VC capital handed out by firms in 2017, meaning that women are disturbingly underrepresented in the startup world.) When it comes to reporting on these various industries, then, the gender discrepancies that exist mean that quotes appearing in the news — and therefore, the people widely regarded as experts on those topics — are also mostly coming from men. This perpetuates a cycle in which men continue to be regarded as experts, are in turn more likely to be hired at high-level positions, and are then again given the microphone to speak as authorities.

Speaking Up

And so too in healthcare, where the voices of the industry, the leadership in hospitals and academia, are also male. Julie Silver, M.D., an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, recently noticed: As in many industries, whether small business or bigger, the people who hold those positions are overwhelmingly male.

That’s where Julie Silver comes in. A few years ago, Silver, a doctor and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, noticed the discrepancy in healthcare journalism and launched #QuoteHer, an initiative to match the number of female medical professionals’ voices in the news with their male colleagues.

Silver’s campaign took off on Twitter, where users highlighted stories that do a good job of quoting female medical professional … and others that completely leave female medical professionals out.

Dr. Dyan Hes of Gramercy Pediatrics wrote that an interview with NBC News about football and concussions in teens left out the fact that she is a doctor, mentioning only that she is a mother:

Dr. Kim Kelly underscored the fact that there are still too few women in leadership positions and sitting on committees, a fact often misattributed to a nonexistent meritocracy:

Dr. Marta Supervia pointed out that women in medicine are often not properly introduced:

And Dr. Chiquita Collins used the moment to point out that women in medicine experience harassment at the workplace just like women in other professions:

More Industries, More Voices

Silver’s campaign appears to be working: in 2015, just 12 quotes out of 50 of Silver’s top healthcare quotes were from women; that number rose to 20 out of 50 in 2016, following her efforts. The campaign looks like it could have wider implications — it could be successfully implemented in other fields where men are the predominant voice. If so, women in leadership positions would be much more likely to understand these concerns at a cellular level, and to work to address them. Similarly, women in industries like tech or entertainment would be uniquely qualified to speak about issues that affect them directly.

All of this plays into the fact that professional women in all fields are frequently overlooked as experts, and are often not tapped to be the public face of their industries — a problem made much worse, of course, by the persistent gender bias at the top levels of employment in this country and abroad. By working to educate the media about how this plays out in healthcare reporting, Silver draws attention to a problem that affects millions of women — #QuoteHer makes sure the stories we tell are a truer reflection of the world.