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Comments sections have a sexism problem. This is by design

Women are vastly underrepresented in digital forums. This is fundamentally a design problem, writes Marie Tessier, who has been moderating comments at The New York Times since 2007.

Comments sections have a sexism problem. This is by design
[Source Photo: creisinger/iStock]

I have been moderating comments at The New York Times since 2007, the year the first iPhone went on the market. Little did I realize the discoveries that awaited.

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In the past 14 years, I’ve seen how women’s voices across the entire digital public square are derailed and disrupted, and how that antagonism continues to influence women’s confidence in sharing their views on public affairs in the digital public square. It is not so much about the many victims of misogyny online, though that is part of the picture. Rather, it is about the loss to democracy when women’s voices are limited. The promise of equality in democracy is failing when women’s voices remain quieted and marginalized.

When half the population is not fully represented in civic debate, technology companies and public affairs forums have an obligation to fix it. Public forums of all kinds must redesign conversations to reflect a fair representation of women, minorities, and other marginalized groups. Women’s low status in public conversations both undermines democratic influence and reinforces existing inequalities.

Comments on the news are a primary form of political communication in the 21st century. More than half of people in a 2015 survey said they have left comments on news sites and on social media. Three-quarters reported reading comments.

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It is my conviction as a journalist that news sites have an obligation to host conversations for intelligent discussion of public affairs. News media have splintered in recent years, weakening their place as the primary destination for public conversation. Still, promoting public engagement in civic affairs is a fundamental mission of ethical journalism, and it is in that vein that I offer my thoughts for fulfilling that purpose.

From my earliest days online, I noticed a significant gap between men’s and women’s participation. A lot has changed as The New York Times shifted from primarily a print-oriented product, as it was when I started, to a digital-first publication. The company has succeeded in getting a larger proportion of women to subscribe. My work moderating comments, it turns out, has been a kind of archaeological excavation. Down at the bottom of my work site, as I pondered women’s lagging engagement, I have uncovered the fossils of gender segregation in public life. I unearthed the bones of women’s silence in a culture where women’s voices still are routinely and publicly derided. The silence of disadvantaged minorities is down there, too.

As long as men have created ruling councils and legislatures, societies were defined by the rights and the voices of men alone. Sadly, the fossils of historic gender segregation and the official exclusion of women from the public square have functioned as the new bones of digital technology and the public conversations they support.

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Sometimes, the digital public square is good for women’s voices. It has had some powerful organizing effects, as evidenced by the Global Women’s March in January 2017 and by some of the successes of the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, both launched by Black women on social media. Sometimes, women find their collective voices, often when they feel they have reached a tipping point of solidarity with like-minded comrades. It helps when they feel they are part of a give-and-take conversation with each other and not subject to outsider criticism.

Sadly, electronic media are also a powerful organizing force for hate, as global hate movements have coalesced with the rise of social media.

As I’ve moderated thousands of comments to the Opinion pages of The New York Times online, the shortfall in women’s voices has been obvious, as it is on news sites worldwide. From the earliest comments in late 2007, through President Barack Obama’s first inauguration day and his presidency, through the Trump presidency, women are consistently outnumbered in comments about public affairs. These numbers swell when women feel personally affected, when the subject is within the bounds of gender-normed topics such as education or health, and when women’s rights are directly at issue.

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Women’s voices are lagging in news comments at The New York Times and at leading news sites worldwide, as research at The Times in 2015 and elsewhere has shown in the years following. Women were outnumbered three to one in news comments then, just as women are underrepresented in Congress, on political discussion programs on television, in prime minister’s offices, and in leadership positions throughout the work world.

To me as a feminist, a journalist, and a lifelong proponent of participatory democracy, the lagging voice of women has also been painful. Here I was, moderating a premier global forum on public affairs, day in and day out, and women weren’t participating to the same degree as men.

And what was going on? There is literally no barrier to participation, other than registering at NYTimes.com. While some privacy advocates may find that onerous, setting up that minor bar is one way for The Times to know that a real person is connected to a user profile and the comments that stem from it. It helps deter antagonists who thrive on disrupting constructive conversations.

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Bringing women’s voices to equality is a multifaceted, systemic issue of the public affairs ecosystem. It’s not enough to simply call on women to speak up. We do need to change public conversations, but it is fundamentally a design problem. It’s a function of comprehensive social design, web design, workplace design, and conversation design.

If we are to solve the deficit in participatory democracy, a core piece of the puzzle is solving the problem of the gender gap online, where young people in particular live and talk. It’s a crucial foundation of democracy in the digital age.

News organizations are part of the solution. For women to claim our speaking time in the democracies of the future and to move to equal power in government and society, we have to be speaking online in the most popular forums. We have to have leaders and a grassroots willing to bring women’s policy and political priorities more clearly into the open. And we have to create online forums that truly represent a democratic world.

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Excerpt from Digital Suffragists: Women, the Web, and the Future of Democracy by Marie Tessier, © 2021 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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