Chat Replay: Why Do We Need Female Journalists with Technical Expertise?

When reading my list of 20 South by Southwest Interactive panels that journalists should vote for, some people wondered: Where are all the women? Only two of the 20 panelists I mentioned are women.

Jill Zimon asked in a comment, "Does that just reflect the ones you chose or did you find a paucity of panels in journalism overall being led by women?"

It's an important question that prompted me to find some answers. So with the help of ProPublica's Amanda Michel, I looked through the proposals and tallied the total number of female and male panelists.

We found that of the 2,381 panels, only about 30 percent were proposed by women. This is reflective of the overall percentage of women who typically end up as panelists in the interactive portion of the festival.

It's important to note that while the majority of panels were proposed by men, the ones that are ultimately selected may end up including additional female speakers. (We didn't account for the panels that had speakers who were yet to be determined, and though we double-checked the numbers, some inaccuracies may have slipped through.)

"The percentage of female speakers has been about the same over the last three years -- about 30 percent," said SXSW staffer Melissa Smolensky. She noted that in 2010, 375 of the 1,362 speakers (30 percent) were women.

The number of female speakers depends, in part, on how many votes they get. Online voters account for 30 percent of the vote; the SXSW staff account for 30 percent; and the SXSW advisory board account for the remaining 40 percent.

Smolensky said the staff are responsible for factoring gender, as well as racial and geographic diversity, into the voting process. Each year, she said, SXSW sends a letter to confirmed participants, advising: "If you are organizing a panel session with at least three speakers, we feel very strongly that at least one of these speakers should be a female."

The panels span a wide array of topics, including programming, geolocation and social networking. Of the journalism-related panels, 70 percent were proposed by men.

"Ever since SXSW Interactive began in 1994, when the industry was mostly male-dominated," Smolensky said, "SXSW Interactive has made it a point to seek out innovative women in the space."

Many would argue that the field still is mostly male-dominated -- and the numbers from other tech-related conferences suggest as much.

Take, for instance, the Personal Democracy Forum, which focuses on the intersection of technology and politics. This year's PDF conference attracted 164 speakers, according to the forum's website. About 65 percent of those speakers were men.

The speakers at last year's Online News Association conference were more evenly split, but still male-dominated. Of the 88 speakers listed on ONA's site, about 63 percent were men. (The gender split among registrants was roughly 43/57, according to figures provided by ONA President Christine Montgomery.)

The numbers have led to the creation of groups such as Women Who Tech, which was created in part because "women are significantly underrepresented on panels at major technology conferences," the group's website says.

Social scientists have debated the gender gap in technology for years. In 2001, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher conducted a four-year study and wrote a related book, "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing." In the book they argue that the technology field will likely remain a "male clubhouse" until major social, cultural and educational changes are made to bridge the gap.

In 1998, Roberta Furger -- previously a senior editor/writer at PC World -- wrote a book called "Does Jane Compute?" in which she argues that the gender imbalance stems from an inequity in computer education.

So what does all of this mean for women who specialize in the technology side of journalism, from website developers to programmers to technology reporters?

I asked two female journalists, Cindy Royal and Tiff Fehr, to discuss this issue. Royal, an assistant professor at Texas State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, completed her dissertation on gender and technology. Fehr, a user experience "engineerette" at, has a particular interest in the subject.

During the chat, which took place on Friday, Aug. 20, Royal and Fehr responded to questions and feedback about why it matters that women take part in the technology-related fields of journalism and what can be done to increase their participation in it. The chat, which you can replay below, generated a lively discussion on these topics.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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