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How 17 Equals 49.6: The Amazing Multiplying Women


When a group of society has long been underrepresented, an increase in representation, no matter how small, can be perceived inaccurately as an onslaught. Hulton Archive/Gilbert Stuart/Kean Collection/Leemage/Universal History Archive/Stapleton Collection/Getty
When a group of society has long been underrepresented, an increase in representation, no matter how small, can be perceived inaccurately as an onslaught. Hulton Archive/Gilbert Stuart/Kean Collection/Leemage/Universal History Archive/Stapleton Collection/Getty

In early June, the HowStuffWorks podcast "Stuff You Missed in History Class" was called out yet again on what is apparently an obvious bias: The show, it seems, is female-centric. The latest listener to note this suggested the hosts change the name to "stuff you missed in history class mostly about women."  

"Fed up" with "getting basically this exact same email," along with tweets, Facebook comments and one-star reviews claiming the same female slant, podcast co-host Tracy V. Wilson went to the archives. What she found was this: From March 2013 to the present, 21 percent of episodes have featured women, 34 percent have featured "ungendered" subjects (the deaf society on Martha's Vineyard, for instance) and 45 percent have featured men.

Such a fundamental, shared misperception might be more surprising were it not so well-documented. Both scientific research and journalistic fact-checking have revealed a strange tendency in the populace to overestimate the female presence.

The phenomenon isn't male-specific. In 2015, researchers asked almost 1,800 executives, both men and women, of large companies to estimate the percentage of women among CEOs of large companies (greater than $500 million in revenue). The average male said 25, the average female said 21, and according to the study authors, the answer is 8.

Women aren't even the chattier sex. Most studies on the subject find that males do most of the talking. And when females take up 50 percent of the speaking time, they're often seen as dominating the discussion.

"I think it's a simple cognitive error," says Virginia Valian, Distinguished Professor of psychology and linguistics at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

"Why do academics think there are so many women in academia?  The faculty dining room used to have no women in it.  If there are now four, it looks like an onslaught," Valian writes in an email.

A Distorted "Normal"

According to Valian, it's the natural result of longstanding exclusion.

"When a group is underrepresented — say, blacks in the theater — people come to take that underrepresentation as the norm," Valian writes. "Then when a couple of blacks actually get a part, it seems like the theater stage is full of blacks.  It has increased dramatically, of course, because there were so few to begin with." 

The phenomenon is hard at work in the movies. In 2013, a study commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media looked at 120 top-grossing films released between 2010 and 2013. The study, conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and team at the University of Southern California,  found some problems with gender-ratio realism. Females made up about 23 percent of the average "workforce," and about 30 percent of all speaking or named characters. An earlier study by the group found that females made up 17 percent of the average "crowd" in G-rated movies.

For reference, females were 49.6 percent of the world's population and 39.6 percent of the world's workforce in 2014, according to the World Bank. It's almost 50 percent in the U.S.

Chronic underrepresentation can make a group seem more influential, too. As perceived by journalist Robert Lipsyte, young-adult fiction bears an "overwhelmingly female imprint." In the 2011 New York Times essay "Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope," Lipsyte reasons that boys would read more if they were better represented in children's literature.

Also in 2011, what the Sociologists for Women in Society calls the "most comprehensive study of 20th century children's books ever undertaken in the United States" found that most lead characters in children's literature are male, even when they're animals, two-thirds of all central characters are male, and a character appearing in a title is twice as likely to be a male one.

Valian recently witnessed a similar disconnect firsthand.

A colleague "commented that the MacArthur awards went disproportionately to women and minorities," she recounts. So she looked up the 2015 awardees.  

"Of the 24 people, 9 are women, of whom 2 are minority women; 6 are minority men," Valian reports. "So, 38 percent are female, and 33 percent are minority (counting the 2 minority women).  So 38 percent are white men."

The MacArthur Foundation awards are global. In terms of proportionality, women and nonwhite men were robbed.

The 17 Percent

Geena Davis, for one, blames Hollywood. Here's what she told NPR in 2013:

My theory is that since all anybody has seen, when they are growing up, is this big imbalance — that the movies that they've watched are about, let's say, 5 to 1, as far as female presence is concerned — that's what starts to look normal. And let's think about — in different segments of society, 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women; 17 percent of tenured professors are women. It just goes on and on. And isn't that strange that that's also the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies? What if we're actually training people to see that ratio as normal so that when you're an adult, you don't notice?

A distorted sense of women's numbers, and therefore their reasonable allotment of time and space, could help explain how women can seem to hold almost five times the number of CEO positions they do, and how a crowd that's 17 percent female can seem like an accurate representation of humanity.

It may also shed light on how a podcast with a predominantly male subject lineup can receive so many emails alleging female content bias that a host takes the time to perform a statistical analysis of three years of shows — complete with pie charts — just so she can stop answering them. 

Note: This article was updated on June 26, 2016. The article originally attributed the 2013 study discussed to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In fact, the institute commissioned the study, but the study was conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, & Dr. Katherine Pieper from the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.    



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