At first, we thought it was just us. Scanning through the morning news roundup of articles on nuclear weapons policy, we would notice the same thing over and over again as we read.
We dismissed our suspicions. After all, we had made so much progress. Still, the feeling was there, creeping and pervasive. It was only when we spoke with each other that we said the plainly obvious out loud.
More often than not, women are conspicuously absent from media coverage on Iran, North Korea, bilateral and multilateral arms control, civil nuclear cooperation, nuclear terrorism, and more.
Women being left out of national security discussions is not a new discovery. What struck us is that when it comes to nuclear policy, there are ample women to quote, so why isn’t that reflected in the reporting? The last two nuclear agreements joined by the United States were negotiated by women. A woman just ran an unprecedented international effort to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. A woman was, until recently, running one of the three nuclear weapons laboratories. A woman just won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to abolish nuclear weapons.
And yet, story after story makes it seem as if women are not even engaged on these issues. To make matters worse, many of the men taking up the space in media coverage consider themselves allies in the fight for gender equality. It happens so often that it gives the appearance that solidarity is not as attractive as getting your name in the New York Times.
To prove, if only to ourselves, that we were not imagining all this, we set up a very unscientific experiment. Over the course of January, we monitored nuclear weapons policy pieces and found 28 stories that featured male non-governmental experts exclusively. There are likely more (and we didn’t even bother to check the radio and TV statistics), but almost one print piece a day seemed like enough proof of a phenomenon that we are now calling the marticle (man-article).
The marticle is cousin to the manel, or the all-male panel. Manels are a regular feature of the nuclear policy world, but are subject to more focus and criticism. Many men in the non-governmental nuclear policy community (we’ll just call them male NGO experts from now on) say that they will not join panels without women or ones where the only woman is the moderator.
Still, two recent nuclear policy-focused conferences in D.C., the National Defense University’s conference on the Nuclear Posture Review and the Exchange Monitor’s Nuclear Deterrence Summit, had about 15 percent female participation, so much work remains.
Of course, the broader American public is not likely to show up at nuclear policy conferences in D.C., but they do read major news outlets. Additionally, while a panel composed of four (almost inevitably white) men is visually obvious, the lack of women experts in a 900-word article is less so. That is why the marticle is far more pernicious than the manel: It has a much larger reach and gender bias is less visible.
We also acknowledge that the all-white article is even more troubling and we are both committed to amplifying the voices of people of color in the national security debate. Some excellent work on this problem has already begun. See Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security (WCAPS) and New America’s Mission Visible.
In the month of January, based on the publications we perused, the following outlets posted at least one nuclear-related story that featured only male NGO experts: Defense News, Politico, Vox News, USA Today, Bloomberg, The Guardian, Vice, the Washington Examiner, The Atlantic, Defense One, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, CBS News, Newsweek, Reuters, and Mashable.
Time Magazine featured two nuclear marticles, the Washington Post published four, and the winner for the most male-centric nuclear policy coverage goes to the New York Times with six separate marticles. Combined monthly readership of these outlets comes to over 150 million. That’s a lot of exposure for our male colleagues.
Having our suspicions validated, we began to think about why so many nuclear marticles exist. Is it reporters who don’t contact women or is it our friends and colleagues who don’t recommend their female peers as additions or substitutes for themselves? We think it is both.
If asked about the lack of women in their articles, we often hear reporters say that they ask women, but those women don’t respond in a timely fashion. Time pressure also drives the tendency of reporters to go to the same reliable sources. Reporters are admittedly under strict deadlines, but that is not and cannot be an excuse for failing to recognize the value of diverse perspectives.
Another problem arises from the fact that reporters often look to Twitter for possible sources on breaking news, but don’t seem to acknowledge that social media is not an even playing field. Women are far more likely than their male counterparts to be bullied, demeaned, and threatened for expressing opinions online. Many women, including us, sometimes hesitate to jump into debates to avoid the inexorable backlash.
We have also heard that women are less likely to deliver good “pull quotes” — the short, often pithy lines that reporters crave. We object to that assertion, but even if it were true, maybe it is time for reporters, editors, publishers and producers to acknowledge that quippy pull quotes are anathema to diverse and nuanced perspectives. Perhaps one of the problems with the current state of our public discourse is that snark can often out-value substance.
The good news is most of the work has already been done for reporters interested in quoting women. Between SheSource, ReThink Media, Foreign Policy Interrupted and multiple expert lists (some compiled by their own colleagues), there are myriad ways to reach female experts. To make things easier, journalists can try to familiarize themselves with these female experts before a possible assignment arises. They can also contact multiple women at once, increasing the likelihood of a response.
Regarding our colleagues, they have to absorb and acknowledge the fact that they contribute to the problem. While many of our male colleagues advocate for gender inclusivity, they seem less willing to accept that true equality in the field will require that they share (or sometimes leave) the stage. There are only so many chances to be quoted in major outlets and if reporters don’t feel any pressure to branch out to new voices, things will never change.
Male NGO experts can be better allies to women by adding their voices to the call for diverse perspectives in the media. When approached for quotes or interviews, male NGO experts can direct reporters to female colleagues (again, an easy task, since lists already exist!) and sometimes, they can even defer the opportunity to be quoted altogether. They can and should take the time to assess whether they are inadvertently dismissing, overshadowing, or perhaps even patronizing their female colleagues in the public sphere. They can also stand up against men who are doing those things on purpose.
For our part, women can help each other by promoting each other’s work and recommending each other to reporters. We can defend each other in the social media sphere and demand that our community does that same. We can also fight the temptation to resign ourselves to the status quo. Women often worry about being the labeled as “that lady who always complains about gender diversity.” That has to stop. If we are in a uniform state of righteous indignation, then we are all “that lady.”
Moving ahead, it is important to recognize that this is not about racking up quotes in the Times. This is about respect for our experiences as women. Those experiences shape our perspectives and analysis, which adds value to our commentary. The media is failing to contribute to the public good if they don’t make an effort to amplify the voices of half the planet. When it comes to an existential threat like nuclear weapons, that failure is unacceptable. Fortunately, when it comes to nuclear policy reporting, you cannot swing a dosimeter without hitting a woman. We are all more than happy to help bring about the demise of the marticle.