Writing a column is often a process of sharpening words until they are sharper than your thoughts. Had I been unfair in my assessment? The numbers for all startups, where journalism is not broken out, are indisputable. Venture capital money mostly goes from men to other men. Estimates of what proportion of funding, exactly, goes to women-owned startups vary but never get above 15 percent, and are often as low as 7 percent. In journalism there are maddeningly few solid pieces of research on what is happening to digital jobs, as Ann Friedman pointed out here last month. So we are reduced to counting what we know.
Initially my article was inspired somewhat by Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, which launched Monday. He was quoted in Time.com talking about how rigorous his hiring process is, and how it is ‘too important to be left to HR reps.’ He said that he plots hires on a grid for rigor and empirical reporting.
Anyone who has a grid on which they plot employees for suitability needs a third axis (this will be familiar territory to statisticians) which represents diversity. Not because employers need to feel good about themselves, but because homogeneity can be a business problem. Women are interested and active in politics, business, and sports. We are 50 percent of the market in the main demographic. Some of us would very happily challenge Silver on football knowledge (soccer to Americans; football everywhere else), and many of us really would like to see far more women writing about all these topics. Entering a predominantly male environment can be offputting for women, both as consumers and employees.
Nate Silver clearly didn’t like the angle my response to his Time.com quote took—he told New York magazine that he found my piece “really frustrating,” adding that of those applying for jobs with FiveThirtyEight, only 15 percent are women, which he also finds frustrating. Just by sharing that statistic, however, he provides motivation for improvement. Given that his staff is just under a third female, Silver is doing better in finding women candidates outside the available applicant pool. In time one hopes there will be a data journalism site having the same 50:50 ratio of men to women as Kara Swisher’s Re/code.
The grander point that I tried to make, and will continue to hammer away at, is that journalism is important. It shapes information and the way people engage with vital issues. It is exciting to be around at a time when talents like Silver, Poitras, Bell, Klein, and Greenwald want to do better work in new formats to be relevant to wider audiences. But doing it differently is not just words on page, or line graphs, listicles, and math. Doing it differently means considering the workforce, the outward face of the organization, and measuring it as as carefully as Silver does. One of the most common refrains I heard last week was, “Are we still having this debate?” Yes, I’m afraid so.
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