The dearth of comments by women in print

How anti-women is the Guardian? This might seem an odd question for those brought up on the idea that the Guardian has always been associated with a feminist perspective, embodied in the work of Mary Stott, columnist Jill Tweedie and, in the present day, Polly Toynbee.

However, some correspondents feel that the Guardian, in print and online, doesn’t do enough to defend and promote women. “I am writing to complain about the sexism on Comment is free and the failure of the Guardian to acknowledge, or address, the lack of female commenters below the line and the predominance of anti-feminist and sexist male bloggers,” wrote one correspondent who had prepared a spreadsheet with an analysis of the gender of the commenters.

“The article, On rape, the left still doesn’t get it, of 27 December, highlights this. In the first 50 comments, ie the front page, there are 28 identifiably male and five female posters. I have included only those who have stated their gender in profiles or posts. However, unless one looks to the profile archive, the anonymous nature of posting hides this disparity. It is not obvious that there is no substantive contribution to this discussion by women. Many of the posters are habitually sexist commentators … the hostile culture women face on Comment is free must encourage their absence.”

Naomi Wolf’s article on 6 January, which argued that the women accusing men of rape should not have anonymity, brought forth this comment: “It is their fault [the Guardian]. They know this is manna from heaven to the Cif [Comment is free] mob. They are chief cheerleaders for the Daily Mail campaign against rape victims. They are providing a platform for the kind of propaganda that persuaded Dave that rape anonymity for defendants would be such a great first move for his government. And, meanwhile, the rape conviction rate stays exactly where it always was.” Her solution would be to turn off the comments on issues that traditionally attract anti-women comments, such as those that relate to “men’s rights”, and be even tougher on moderating the comments.

A regular reader of our letters page has also been counting. “Out of 12 letters published on 29 December 2010, only two were from women, of the five ‘shorts’ only one from a woman. Sadly my ongoing analysis of the letters page of the Guardian (and other thoughtful nationals) is that this is a relatively good day for women.”

She goes so far as to suggest that before letters are selected they should be made gender neutral so that the editor would not know whether they came from a man or woman: “Universities have gone to the expense of making exam papers gender neutral before they are marked which has, curiously at a single stroke, improved the performance of women students.”

The deputy letters editor said that he recognises there is a disparity but that there are many fewer letters written by women. He feels (and there are women who edit the letters page too) that this may be a reflection of a broader gender bias in society as a whole.

Against a traditionally male background, the editor of Cif is a woman, as are the editor of the newspaper comment pages and the overall head of comment in print and online (40% of Guardian editorial staff are women). Cif’s editor has already written that Cif is “crucially, about both the articles and the comments” and has made it a priority in her first six months in the job to improve the nature of the debates on the site.

She said it was impossible to conclusively prove the sex of commenters, which made analysis difficult. But she is committed to encouraging diversity on the site. “I want a wider range of voices, especially more women, joining the debate, both writing and reading articles, and engaging with them.”

Our community guidelines ban sexism, and sexist comments are removed as soon as moderators are aware of them. “But,” Cif’s editor says, “it can also be important and productive to engage with, debate and challenge views you disagree with, and that is what Cif is about.”

This column was originally published in the Guardian on Jan. 10, 2011.

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