Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Gender Imbalance in Blog Readership

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my two most recent posts (here and here), I discussed the apparent gender imbalance on the comment board here on Dorf on Law.  I noted in passing that the apparent mix of our overall readership is about 65-35 (men-to-women), based on several sources of data that are surely imperfect but that are consistent with each other.  Today, I want to offer a few thoughts about that imbalance.

Before Professor Dorf collected the data, what did I think the numbers would look like?  I think I can honestly say that I expected it to be about 50-50.  In part, this is because law students constitute our biggest group of readers, and the gender mix in law schools overall is close to balanced, with even the most skewed law schools enrolling more than 40% women.  True, this blog also has a fairly large readership of professors, who (as one of the commenters on my post last Wednesday pointed out) are still living in a 70-30 world.  But we seem to trend younger in our readership, even among professors and lawyers, so I expected something approaching 50-50 to prevail.

Knowing now that our blog has roughly twice as many male readers as female readers, is there an obvious explanation?  I will start with one of the most well known possible reasons, which is the use of sports metaphors and examples.

Research has shown that sports is often a dividing line in workplaces, with men using sports talk as a way to exclude women from the in-group conversation.  Because of that research, I try scrupulously to avoid using sports examples when I teach.  Sometimes that is unavoidable, as the post-Super Bowl controversy about the tax treatment of the Most Valuable Player's free pickup truck was so obviously a topic that merited discussion in a Federal Income Taxation class.  Generally, however, it is a good idea (especially because my law school has a fairly large group of non-U.S. students) to forgo sports discussions.

As it happens, this blog's two main writers are middle-aged men who did grow up immersed in standard American sports culture.  Although we have lost a great deal of passion about our sports loyalties over the years, the interest and the historical knowledge is still very much there.  Thus, a year and a half ago, I wrote "Create Moronic Chaos!" which was an extended basketball analogy, in the service of discussing Republican political strategies.  Similarly, Professor Dorf's posts will occasionally use sports analogies, but only occasionally.  I also sometimes write about the educational and financial aspects of college sports.

In any case, although the sports content is not zero on this blog, it is rare, and when it does happen, we try to include enough information for people who do not know the background story.  (This is important even for our younger readers who are sports fans, because so many of our sports stories are so badly dated.)

It thus seems fairly safe to conclude that the "culture" on this blog is not uninviting to those who care nothing for sports.  (Yes, there are plenty of women who care about sports, but we are dealing with statistical probabilities in this instance.)  That brings us to the main question: Is there something about the general content of this blog that draws more male readers than female readers?  I think the answer is yes.  Both constitutional law (the field in which Professor Dorf and Professor Colb most often write their blog posts) and tax law (my field) are, for reasons that I do not fully understand, male-dominated.  I also very often write about economics and fiscal policy, which as academic fields are even more gender imbalanced.  The result, I think, is that our readership skews male.

Each semester, I teach a large section of the basic income tax course, with about one hundred students enrolled.  The typical enrollment is about 60% to 65% male.  The legal tax professoriate is, especially in the younger age ranges, quite gender balanced.  However, on the top ten law faculties, I can only think of two women whom one could call primarily tax scholars.

The short, unsatisfying explanation for this is the old story that "math is hard," and that by the time students enter law school (many of them, male and female, consciously avoiding other fields that require knowledge of math), the socially driven imbalance between boys and girls in math skills drives course selection and interests.  Although I use very few numbers in my posts about tax and economics, the subject matters themselves would tend to draw people who are comfortable with numbers-oriented topics.

As I noted above, however, constitutional law is also generally thought to be a male-dominated field.  There, I am at a loss.  There is almost no math involved.  The topics are universal, and the field often involves topics that are likely to be particularly interesting to students who care about gender issues.  Even so, the evidence that I have seen suggests that Con Law draws more men than women.

This post is not designed to draw a judgment.  I believe that what we write here is generally interesting (when it is interesting at all) to both women and men.  I did find it surprising that our readership is as skewed male as it is.  The most plausible explanation certainly relies on sexist social conditioning writ large, which plays out more generally in our classrooms and on blogs.  That will someday change, one hopes.

10 comments:

Joseph Simmons said...

If you presented this issue to your students, could it be helpful to ask them to answer a short anonymous poll stating (1) gender (2) whether they read legal blogs (3) if so, what kind of law (4) if not, why (5) what factors discourage them (6) why they think more females don't read/participate (7) whether those reasons discourage them.

Something along those lines?

I don't see why "sexist social conditioning" is the most plausible explanation for more women not reading this blog. You observe that for some reason, constitutional law and tax law are male-dominated. It may be that men and women have differing intellectual tastes and differing preferences for engaging intellectual material.

I recall a thoughtful blog post by Prof. Colb awhile back on the troubles with introverted students not participating in class discussions but being no less engaged or intelligent. She wondered if she should adjust her methods. I thought that would, on balance, be a mistake, despite my falling into that category. I appreciated that she sought to take responsibility as a professor and I do think such consciousness can yield benefits, as some professors may write students off.

Similarly, if women are being discouraged from your fields, do you see any way you might counteract that?

As for sports, my interest and knowledge approach zero and my politics and diet differ significantly from the professor-bloggers. Based on these differences, I might become hopelessly discouraged by some of the statements made despite my gender! However, I appreciate reading intelligent and challenging posts and the unique connections made most often in Prof. Colb's posts (also Prof. Dorf's most recent post).

Joe said...

On various legal related blogs, though a recent comment suggests names used can be misleading, I do see things skewered to males. One exception would be RH Reality Check (which covers many legal topics) for logical reasons that it involves reproductive rights. I do see some mixture on other places, particularly where there is a lot of comments. Also, "Facebook" style posting -- geared to places with a lot of comments -- also seems to correlate with a more diverse comment stream. When the online magazine Slate had a different system of comments ("the Fray"), a message board system, there were some women, though the numbers were skewered. Again, some names could be misleading there. But, there were at least a few regulars who were women, some pretty passionate and vocal.

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Jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noreen said...

I find Jane's comment interesting. In my opinion, she will benefit from a few more years of "seasoning" and experience. Dr. Buchanan's comment about social conditioning is spot on. I am not in the field of law-- but I have been in executive management (CEO). It is a man's world, and strong women are still minimized at times, albeit, subtly. Only continued participation of fearless women will change this. Believe me-- women have come a long way in terms of political (and social) influence-- but there is still a path ahead that needs to be tread.

That said-- Jane-- do not shrink from discussions because of a fear that you will might be "shred to pieces". Wade into the waters! Each person holds their own lived experiences, and there are no experts who hold all of the answers. As a woman, and a minority, you are better served to face your internal limitations (for example, thinking a professor is scary brilliant and avoiding them) and challenge yourself to reach higher. (not to minimize your current accomplishments).

While men do dominate the world, it is because of fearless women who are not afraid of the b word-- or being shred to pieces- that women do sit at the table at important topics of discussion.

PS: Neither Dr. Buchanan or Professor Dorf are actually scary. They are, however, very invested in social justice and have little patience for those who favor a self-serving status-quo

Jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.