Look Who’s Talking

I got into a discussion recently (and by “recently,” I mean “about a year ago, because time apparently flies when you’re an adult) in which I made an assertion that the conversations in the mainstream Bloggernacle are mostly male-dominated. (I defined mainstream as “aside from the feminist blogs,” since the writerly voices at FMH and Exponent are mainly female.) My interlocutor pushed back, pointing to such mainstream luminaries as Peggy Fletcher Stack and Jana Riess as evidence of Mormon women writing and speaking publicly. The whole conversation made me curious, and so I asked: these days in the Bloggernacle, who’s really talking?

Let’s start with By Common Consent, which I think of (rightly or wrongly) as the most prominent and active “mainstream” Bloggernacle site.

In 2016, women were 29% of the regular authors posting at the site, but they made up only 16% of the total posts and 21% of the word count and number of comments generated. Women’s posts had a higher average number of comments (34 vs. 24) and a higher average word count (1378 vs. 1017). The higher comment and word count averages also don’t necessarily point to a stereotype of chatty women: of the top 10 longest posts in 2016, 8 were by men, and 8/10 of the most commented-on posts were by men as well–both slightly over what you’d expect, given that they’re 70% of the writers. Instead, the averages for men are probably driven down by their overall frequency of posting, especially in regular series: many of the regular series like the Easter posts or General Conference posts, while lovely, were short and had few comments.

Interestingly, the above stats change if you include guest posts: 61% of BCC’s guest posts in 2016 were from women, meaning if you count them in the total women wrote 20% of the posts instead of only 16%. Since some guest posters have converted into regular writers, this may be a good strategy for recruiting more female writers.

Now let’s look at Times and Seasons, where the stats are strikingly similar:

In 2016 at Times & Seasons, women were 24% of the authors, and they wrote 23% of the posts, 25% of the words, and got 25% of the total site comments (by count). Women’s posts had a higher average number of comments (30 vs. 26), but a lower median (14 vs. 17), meaning there was higher variance–4 of the top 10 most commented-on posts at the site were by women, 3 of those by Julie Smith, a true T&S rockstar. 

This is by no means a complete analysis, of course–I’d love to go add more sites to this over time to increase the sample sizes, and I’d love to start coding conversations in the comments by the commenter’s sex–but, as a first pass, I feel pretty good about my assertion that Bloggernacle conversations, at least at the sites not developed by and for women, skew male overall, despite the presence of some prominent women. Similarly, these numbers line up to research done on women’s speech in other mixed-set settings: a study done out of BYU and Princeton found that women spoke up to 75% less than men in mixed-sex settings, less than their proportional representation in those groups, and most studies on whether men or women talk more in mixed-sex settings have decided in favor of men.

 

It’s not surprising that I’d get pushback on the assertion, though: human cognitive biases, particularly the availability heuristic, mean that we’d be more likely to remember women speaking and writing publicly in Mormonism, since it’s more unusual, and therefore also more likely to overestimate it. Moreover, some other research has hinted that women are perceived as having equal representation or talking time in mixed-sex contexts when they approach 30%. (These numbers vary, and the research is of questionable quality, but I love this one example: Hanna Roisin, a journalist who wrote a book about the supposed “end of men” and coming female dominance in American life a few years ago, asserted that a Congress that was 18.3% female was “nearly a third” female, and that was “a tipping point when a minority becomes normalized and starts to enter the mainstream.” Ha.)

And so, with that on my mind: I have the perception that ZD is mostly a feminist blog, and, as a site that tackles mostly feminist topics, is dominated by women’s writing. Certainly most of our writers, past and present, are women, but given how many of them are on Heavenly Mother status right now, what did our actual stats look like in 2016?

A-ha: 2/3 active authors in 2016 were female, and our post count was nearly evenly split, but Ziff’s posts are certainly driving the conversations, both in terms of the word count and the comments generated. We’re a small sample size, certainly, and this isn’t a bad thing at all: Ziff’s posts are awesome, and at this point I’m glad for ZD to have any posts at all, but it was interesting to find my own personal perceptions on this to be so skewed, since ZD in 2016 was in no way dominated by women’s writing, much like the rest of the mainstream Bloggernacle.

(I say “mainstream”, of course, because there are places in the Bloggernacle dominated by women, of course–Segullah, The Exponent, and Feminist Mormon Housewives spring to mind–but, to me, there’s an open question about whether’s that’s healthy. On the one hand, segregated spaces allow for women to write and engage more fully, but on the other hand, they can contribute to the marginalization of women’s writing and women’s issues as topics that men shouldn’t have to care about, much as only quoting women leaders in Relief Society or only allowing women to preside over children or other women reinforces a hierarchy in which men are rarely challenged to take women seriously as leaders or thinkers.)

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll save that all for another post (maybe even one with more Bloggernacle data). In the meantime: look who’s talking, because it might not be who you think.

 

18 comments

  1. This is interesting, and definitely matches my perception of the gender balance at the big blogs. Although I see your point about the dangers of sex segregated blogging spaces, I have to admit, I really enjoy the feminist blogs, especially ZD and Exponent, for the nicer comments sections they offer for posts related to women’s issues. I perceive the comments sections at BCC and Times and Seasons to be pretty rough for feminist posts.




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  2. Interesting post. On the big blogs I have a few favorite male writers (generally the geeky post writers) but many of my favorite authors are women. In fact, with the obvious exception of Ziff, I think most of the posts I nominated for Wheaties we’re written by women.

    I’m curious about the ZD chart, the last one. I would expect the break between male and female authors to add to 100.




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  3. MTodd, good question. Most of these numbers won’t add to 100 because many of the big blogs will also post content as “admin.” In those cases I chose to code the sex as n/a since those post represent the blog authors collectively and not individually. It’s more obvious on ZD (where we’ve only had 4 authors in 2016: Lynette, Ziff, myself, and admin), but it’s true of the BCC and T&S numbers as well.




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  4. Nice analysis. That’s pretty much what I expect for T&S and BCC, though like you I expected ZD to be dominated by the female bloggers. I’m surprised it’s not.

    I would love to see a gender breakdown for comments sections, though I suspect data would be hard to gather with the number of gender-neutral/ambiguous handles used by commenters.




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  5. Interesting! I think you may be onto something that the women’s voices are tapped for the women’s blogs. We should do more guest blogger swapping to infuse some more female writing at those male-dominated blogs!!!




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  6. I know it would be difficult to figure out the male/female ratio in the comments section but that would be fascinating. My own perception is that men even tend to dominate the discussion on posts focused on women’s issues. Recently at The Exponent there was a beautiful post written as a letter from mother to daughter where a male commenter came on to tell the original poster and anyone who appreciated the post that they were wrong. Also the post on women’s progress at W&T recently turned into a discussion of priesthood hierarchy not involving women at all! I’ve seen it happen over and over at BCC and T&S. The mods try to intervene but are often unsuccessful. It is a strange phenomenon.




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  7. EBK, I have observed the same phenomenon, insofar as you can when guessing genders based on comment content and pseudonyms. Because of that, some women, including me most of the time, discuss such articles in comment threads in closed Facebook groups rather than in the comments section of the article itself. That adds another layer of complexity to the problem of who is speaking–who is speaking where? Public spaces versus private spaces.




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  8. I’ll just say that the guest post numbers at BCC are no accident: we actively want more female voices at the blog. At the same time, you’re completely right about the toxicity of comment sections on feminist posts, which doesn’t exactly encourage female participation.




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  9. I read this little nugget in The Handbook about ward council and not sure whether to laugh or bang my head on the desk.

    Both men and women should feel that their comments are valued as full participants. The bishop seeks input from Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary leaders in all matters considered by the ward council. The viewpoint of women is sometimes different from that of men, and it adds essential perspective to understanding and responding to members’ needs.

    It’s so sad that it has to be spelled out that women’s viewpoints might be different from men’s, let alone from other women (as if all women think alike). As if men’s viewpoints are default.




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  10. Thanks for sharing that, Jason K! In an earlier draft I had some speculation that this was deliberate, but ended up cutting it because it was just speculation. I’m so glad to hear you confirm it.




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  11. Super interesting, Petra! Thanks for crunching the numbers. I’m not terribly surprised by the ZD stats; I do think we started out as an extremely female-dominated blog, with most of the posts coming from Eve, Seraphine, Kiskilili, and myself, but obviously things have shifted over time. And like you, I’m now just happy that Ziff is valiantly keeping the blog alive. (Though maybe my experience of mania earlier this year, which seemed to involve a lot of blogging, will balance our 2017 stats a bit more? 😉 )

    Like you, I’m ambivalent about primarily female spaces. On the one hand, I think they do a lot of good in creating communities where women feel comfortable participating. I wouldn’t want to lose that. On the other, they do in some ways reinforce the marginalization of women, and I don’t like how “women’s issues” get defined as kind of secondary problems only relevant to a special interest group. I’m thinking about the parallel pattern in church, in which in every ward I’ve been in, Gospel Doctrine is dominated by male voices, and there are women who never say a word in Sunday School who will speak up in Relief Society. Though I’m also not totally sure what I think about gender-segregated church classes, I do think Relief Society does some good in being space where women will talk. Though I’m also concerned by the fact that so many women don’t feel comfortable talking in mixed-gender settings.

    One funny thing over the years has been how many people assume that since ZD is a feminist blog ostensibly dominated by women (though as we see, the latter is no longer the case), the only thing we ever discuss is feminism. I remember one particular argument years ago, in which someone accused us of not being sufficiently faith-promoting (probably fair if by “faith-promoting” you mean “just like the Ensign,” though I actually think our approach is in fact faith-promoting for some people) and complained that all we did was post about feminism (i.e., “complain.”) I went back and counted, and found that less than a third of our posts were on explicitly feminist topics. At which point my interlocutor kind of sheepishly admitted that she only ever read the feminist posts! With that, I’ve noted that all the blogs seem to have the same issue: it’s the controversial stuff, not necessarily the well-written and thought-provoking stuff (though obviously the two can overlap) that drives comments, which may lead to the perception that all anyone ever does is blog about controversial things.

    Jason, I’m glad to hear that BCC is actively seeking out female voices. I agree with the observation that the public conversations on feminism are often hostile (not just at BCC, of course), and like Dog Spirit, I’ve been really interested to note how much of the discussion ends up being in private spaces like Facebook where there is less worry that you’ll be called to repentance, called a whiner, and (my favorite), have someone dismiss your experience by appealing to a lot of abstract statements. I think my energy over the years for engaging in those discussions has just waned; how many times can you stand to have the exact same conversation? That said, I so appreciate the bloggers and commenters, both in and outside of the feminacle, who are tirelessly continuing to talk about feminist issues and dealing with all the resulting craziness.




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  12. I’ll second what Jason said.

    Regarding the comments, they were more actively policed in the past. Perhaps that’s where we need to return.




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  13. Just for fun, I pulled this year’s posts at W&T, and we were running higher with 35% women, but it’s still not even 50/50. I am curious how these things happen. Male voices simply tend to dominate and male writers are more prolific.




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  14. Lynnette, I think the perception that women can only talk about feminism dampens participation to some degree at BCC, too. A few years ago when we surveyed readers about their interests, the biggest complaint overall was that we spent too much time on “women’s issues.” When your interests and experiences are automatically described as “issues” that are irritating to men, sometimes it’s hard to summon the emotional energy to wade into the fray…




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  15. I’ve tabulated Keepa’s comments (the only category relevant to Keepa), excluding all my own comments, for 2016. My modem died, though, and until the new one comes I can’t post without picking it out one letter at a time on the ipad. I can hardly wait to show off the result. 🙂




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  16. Kristine, labelling them “women’s issues” strikes me as a modern wording of the old designation of “question.” Nobody with any pretence to civilized behavior would speak today of “the Chinese question” or “the Mormon question” or “the woman question” or “the Indian question” or “the Jewish question” or “the Negro question,” all of which marked whole categories of people as problems to be solved by white male American Protestants. Maybe someday it will be recognized as just as backward and bigoted to speak of “women’s issues” as problems pertaining to some lesser-valued segment of humanity, as it would be to speak of “the woman question.”




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  17. As a female writer in my 30s, I find it hard to find time to devote not only to writing but also the vital practice of pondering my stories, characters, theme, etc. As the primary child and home caretaker, a lot is on my mind and it’s difficult to block it out in order to create. This is in no way an excuse for the lack of female voices. We need them so much.




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  18. Thanks for sharing this analysis, Petra. Fascinating stuff! It’s really unfortunate that male voices still dominate at the big blogs. I’m sorry to be hogging the discussion here to some degree, but I’m glad that you and Lynnette have been blogging more recently and taking the baton back from me! 🙂




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