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A funny thing happened as the digital revolution in news unfolded. As news sites offered more open and more accessible spaces for readers to share their points of view, online communities largely left women behind.

Research about New York Times comments, as well as 15 top news sites worldwide shows that men outnumber women in news comments by 3:1 to 4:1.

The absence of women’s voices is a problem for democracy, and for news sites’ bottom lines.

Martin, F. (2015). Getting my two cents worth in: Access, interaction, participation and social inclusion in online news commenting. #ISOJ Journal, 5(1), 80-102.

First, news organizations are failing to fulfill their democratic mission as civic institutions.

Nearly a century after women got the right to vote in the United States, women vote in a greater proportion than men, and have been doing so for 35 years. Raising up women’s voices is essential to fulfilling news sites’ civic mission.

Second, women are the world’s most valuable consumers and make the vast majority of retail decisions. While news sites were creating open forums and agonizing about trolls, editors have largely overlooked the fact that their most valuable consumers just weren’t engaging. Engaging women will improve metrics for their most lucrative consumers.

The yawning gender gap in this aspect of engagement is no surprise to anyone who has observed women’s representation in other parts of public life. Women remain vastly underrepresented in Congress, in front-page bylines, on Sunday talk shows. And as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg argues in her book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," women volunteer their voices less in the workplace, too. Girls participate less in classroom discussions when they see themselves as less efficacious, research shows, especially in science, technology, engineering and math.

Clearly, women’s engagement in news comments is one mirror of a broader cultural trend of women being under engaged and under represented. It’s not merely a stand-alone problem at news sites.

The Coral Project is an open-source software project debuting this year as a collaboration between Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, The New York Times and the Washington Post. As The New York Times’ institutional lead on a Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellowship, I am an audience engagement strategist to the Coral Project.

The objective in the coming year is to drive innovation through the use of gender-inclusive design principles and protocols. In the end, we aim to have a model for user-based strategies that will optimize women’s engagement at news organizations, even as growing numbers of news organizations are moving away from hosting comments. As the Coral Project works to resolve problems have developed with the growth of online communities, we think gender-inclusive strategies can help readers stay engaged.

Marie Tessier  
   
Institutional fellowship project lead



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