Why Women Don’t Read the Comments — or Write Them, Either

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For women or queer people on the Internet, comment sections — known for being replete with asinine trolls, despite occasional strokes of brilliant insight — mostly exist to be ignored. It’s a phrase passed back and forth like a password, even made into jewelry: “Never read the comments.”

So we’re not reading them. But apparently, women aren’t writing them either. Emma Pierson studied over a million comments at the New York Times and discovered significant disparities.

Women were clearly underrepresented in my data. They made only a quarter of comments, even though their comments got more recommendations from other readers on average. Even when they did speak up, they tended to cluster in stereotypically “female” areas: they were most common on articles about parenting, caring for the old, fashion and dining.

I immediately thought about school when I read this. Us Hermione-like girls who raised our hands constantly or even — heaven forbid!— called out in class, surely remember feeling like unladylike anomalies. Clearly the problem of how we’re socialized to engage with ideas in public begins early and extends all the way to the website of our paper of record. Pierson suggests many valid reasons for this, which coincide with the exact rationales for the confidence gap, the wage gap, the gap between men and women on op-ed pages (including the Times) and Sunday talk shows, and of course, the phenomenon of casual mansplaining. Women are held back by the threat of online harassment, a double standard wherein aggressive men are praised and similar women denigrated, the unwillingness of men to make room for women’s voices, and women’s own socially ingrained lack of interest in risk-taking.

It comes down to this general truth that almost any editor or community moderator will confirm: men will put themselves forward as experts or critics even when they aren’t, while women experts won’t put themselves forward at all, out of (justified) fear of seeming aggressive or bitchy. When women do venture an opinion, there’s a strong chance they’ll be swarmed by toxic responses. The solutions put forward in Pierson’s piece, like fixing the byline gap and changing article recommendation algorithms, are all good, but will only go so far, and only apply to the world of newspaper comments.

Yet it may also be that there’s an alternative. Smart women have left comments sections to be overrun by shouting dudes, and gone elsewhere. On Facebook and Twitter, for instance, users can at least attempt to block, mute, and unfollow trolls and curate their own community. There’s some, limited control over your audience and dialogue. Incredibly strong feminist and inclusive communities have been formed on social media, in which the public retweeting, outing, and shaming of sexist trolls is a regular ritual, almost a regular exorcism. In these situations swarming goes the other way, and sexists often get hit with mockery or outrage. This is great, and encouraging.

But replacing exclusive communities with other exclusive communities still doesn’t go far enough towards solving the issue that underlies the commenting gap.

Sometimes I think that issue runs so deep that there’s nothing to do but restructure society from the bottom up. And it might be, you see, that the crux of the problem isn’t just about talking (or writing) but about listening. In other words, in our capitalist, work ethic-driven patriarchy, the only external validation that’s available comes for active traits like frequent, loud opinionating. Domination is seen as superior, so from cocktail parties to comment sections, we’re all searching for a sort of validation for our outputs. If that’s the source of the primary reward we get in the realm of ideas, why would men give it up and make room for women? And would that even be a desirable outcome? What happens to people with a different skill set?

As Pierson notes:

there’s another possibility: that men should talk less. This is entirely plausible because most online comments win no prizes for profundity, and yet it never occurred to me while I was originally analyzing the data, or to any of the people who commented on the analysis. This highlights, I think, an assumption even women who speak up often internalize: that women should achieve equality by becoming like men rather than the other way around.

She gives up on this idea right away, and implores women to speak up more for the cause. She’s right in the latter exhortation, but I’m convinced it’s this second possibility that’s the sticking point. Until dialogue, thoroughness, thoughtfulness, and collaboration are valued and rewarded by society as much as self-promoting, hand-waving, and so on, comments sections will remain as troll-friendly as a bridge in a fairy tale.