Yesterday, July 29, was a good day for female writers at The New York Times. Of the 51 articles that made it to the homepage—and were tracked by Who Writes For, a new website, launched this morning, that catalogs the gender breakdown of bylines featured on NYTimes.com—19 were written by women. Thirty-two were written by men, but that 32:19 ratio is a lot closer to an equal 1:1 than any other documented over the past two weeks. Saturday, July 20: 34:10. Tuesday, July 23: 35:4.
Since its founding in late 2009, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, a group that "seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities," according to its mission statement, has done just that, most prominently with The Count, the group's annual study of gender bias in publishing. That Count has done more than anything else that this writer can think of to encourage discussion and debate about gender bias in modern-day publishing; 2012's Count found that every one of the 15 publications reviewed, from The Atlantic to The Times Literary Supplement to The New York Times Book Review, featured not only more male bylines than female bylines, but also reviewed more books by male authors than by female authors over the course of the year. But VIDA's Count did more than inspire conversation on Twitter and countless personal blogs, it inspired Andrew Briggs' latest project.
Briggs, a recent graduate of Northwestern University with degrees in both English and Computer Science, started building Who Writes For in April, but it was the 2011 VIDA Count that first brought the idea of gender bias in publishing to his attention. "I think that was really the first time the idea of an imbalance in voice occurred to me," Briggs wrote to me in an email. "I don't think [The New York Times has] deliberately imbalanced voices, but rather this is the kind of thing that happens when the people in charge aren't really paying attention."
Will Who Writes For encourage the people in charge at The New York Times—and at every other publication where male bylines outnumber those of females (read: most)—to pay attention? It'll be hard for them not to. Briggs' stripped-down site, which relies on some creative use of open-source code, keeps things simple. The main page features a daily tally of male and female bylines featured on the Grey Lady's homepage. As Briggs explains on his site's About page, "[e]very five minutes, the WhoWritesFor backend scrapes the NYT front page using BeautifulSoup. Of the approximately forty 'story' div class elements, about ten of these (at any given time) contain bylines. These stories always fall in the two main columns at the top of NYTimes.com. The system saves these articles and matches their bylines against Bemmu's gender-from-name dictionary, compiled from U.S. Census Bureau data. Each new male and female author is then added to the daily count, and their name and article is posted in the list below the count."
While no algorithm is perfect, as Briggs notes, Who Writes For seems to be doing a near-flawless job of tallying the day's bylines. But to what end?
"My goals for the project range from the very practical to the more esoteric," Briggs told me. On the one hand, greater transparency of the bias on our nation's most prized newspaper's homepage could be corrected very quickly—anybody reading this site could very easily name a dozen or two talented female journalists at the Times that aren't being rewarded with homepage slots—and Who Writes For would register that shift immediately. On the other, Briggs hopes to encourage a more esoteric discussion about the decisions taking place without our complete awareness that inform who we are and what we do. "There are systems in place that affect what we do, what we read, what we watch," Briggs told me, "and I think we have a responsibility to interrogate those systems."