Recently when I was doing my year-end reporting on this blog’s growth, I stumbled across a fact I had somehow forgotten: according to Google Analytics, which knows every detail of what we ate for breakfast, nearly half of this blog’s readers are women.
See the chart above for the gender breakdown, which puts my readership at about 46% female and 54% male.
So why is it that 90% of the comments on this blog come from men?
Scroll through the comments on nearly any post, particularly ones that deal with political or social issues, and you’ll see men everywhere — mostly Mormons, mostly arguing.
Many of these comments are interesting and constructive; some have pointed me to sources or other articles I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Some have taken me to task in an intelligent fashion. And some, of course, are trash, as is typical of the Interwebs.
As a Mormon feminist, it would be tempting to point to this huge disparity between who is lurking and who is commenting and say, “See! In our church culture men are taught that there is nothing more important than their voices. And this same culture tells women, both in policy and in custom, that their voices are less welcome and valuable.”
There is undoubtedly a kernel of truth there, but blaming Mormon culture for this would not tell anything close to the whole story.
That’s because the phenomenon of men dominating online conversations is Internet-wide, and not specific to this site or the Mormon bloggernacle. It’s not just about us or our little religion.
Last year, the New York Times undertook an ambitious study to examine gender disparity in blog comments in various areas of its site. Over a six-month period, researchers tracked commenters’ gender (as far as that could be established by the first names they used), registering nearly a million comments overall. They found that:
- Women were responsible for only 25% of the comments throughout the entire site, though women are 44% of New York Times readers
- Women provided the majority of comments only in the sections of the site devoted to weddings, aging, parenting, dining, and fashion
- Though rarer, women’s comments received “recommendations” up to 39% more often than men’s
The Times concluded that, sadly,
. . . the views that are heard do not fairly reflect the views that are held. This would be bad enough if it were confined to the New York Times website, which has a digital readership of 1.1 million, given that online comments can change minds.
But I think its broader implications are more troubling. It seems unlikely that women are rare in my data due to some misogynistic idiosyncrasy of the New York Times comment pages . . . . It seems much more plausible that women are rare because of broader social forces. Studies show that women are less inclined to speak up even in childhood; studies of women’s participation on online forums find broad signs of inequality.
In the Mormon example I think the disparity in commenters’ gender — not just here but on some other Mormon sites as well — is especially troubling. That’s because in the LDS Church, women lack an “official” space in which they can make their voices heard on important issues, and have their comments matter when decisions are considered and made. If the online world were Utopia, gender would be irrelevant and women could claim a “room of their own” in which other readers, including some who are in church leadership positions, would have to listen to them just to follow the overall conversation.
Ideally, online interactions would, as one study has suggested, stand “in contrast to patterns of male dominance traditionally observed in face-to-face communication.”
In the “real” virtual world in which we live, however, that’s yet to happen.