Skip to main content

Listen to Her:Gender on This American Life

You're reading “Listen to Her” from The Pudding. I'm Ash Ngu. Each week on our site, we document a cultural phenomenon using data and visuals. Today, we analyze the gender breakdown of airtime on This American Life.

Over the past year, The Pudding has researched the gender gap in media (e.g., publishing, comics, and film). In most cases, the shortfall in equal representation is attributed to a lack of women behind the scenes. The prevailing theory is that more stories written by women would feature a greater quantity and more nuanced portrayals of women. While the causes of gender disparity in media are without a doubt complex, the gender gap behind the scenes is the most obvious factor.

For 22 years, the radio program This American Life has historically had a majority women staff in an otherwise male-dominated radio industry. Yet, an analysis of the show’s transcripts still yields the same pattern: men receive more airtime than women. How can this be?

Today on The Pudding, we analyze those 22 years of This American Life transcripts to try to answer these questions, and we speak with the host and executive producer, Ira Glass, about the results. Stay with us.

To figure out how much airtime is divided between men and women, we pulled the show's transcripts and categorized the gender of every person who speaks. Due to the lack of information on speakers with non-binary gender identity, we used only male and female labels.

Act One: A Sea of Male Voices

Below is a chart of all the episodes organized and colored by the percentage of male and female dialogue in the episode.

Gender breakdown of episodes

Men account for nearly two-thirds of the words spoken over the history of the show. And 70% of the episodes have men speaking more than half the time. (We've excluded Ira Glass's lines; as the host, he speaks in nearly every episode, and including his lines would only skew the results more male.)

In a show granting equal speaking time to men and women, we would expect to see episodes cluster toward the middle of the chart. For example, episodes with gender-neutral themes, such as #150: Kids as Adults, would include an equal balance of men and women contributors and guests. Any episodes with male-specific themes, such as #187: Father's Day '01, would be balanced with episodes focusing on themes specific to women. Yet in this case, there have been five episodes devoted to Father's Day and only one episode devoted to Mother's Day.

Glass found the results sobering, “We’re doing feature stories on just about anything that can happen anywhere, stories that are very personal. There's no reason for there to be more men than women.” He added, “The fact that our mostly female staff and I have created a show where most of the voices are men is interesting and, frankly, disturbing. I shared the findings with the staff and we were not exactly sure what to do with it. It’s a sobering thing to see.”

Act Two: Man the Deck

Why do men get so much airtime?

Men could hold on to the mic for longer than women, following research that suggests that men tend to dominate conversations in the public sphere. 1 2 However, the average man and woman speak a similar number of words in an episode.

Ultimately, the main reason men speak more on This American Life is that there are simply more men than women who are invited on the show as contributors and guests. Despite women making up 57% of the current internal production staff, the gender gap is apparent in other roles on the show. Women make up 41% of the show's contributors, which include both the staff and freelance writers and producers that pitch and contribute stories and monologues. Additionally, women make up 35% of the interviewees, which are the people interviewed by staff and contributors.

Gender breakdown of speaker roles

Note: Production staff counts were provided by Ira Glass, who said there are 12 women and 9 men. Contributors of each act were determined using the contributor tags on Acts that were missing contributor tags were assigned a contributor if their description indicated a specific contributor. Interviewees in each act were determined using the transcript and embedded HTML tags which indicated an interviewee role. Role data is available here

Act Three: Right the Ship

Glass noted that the program has recently focused on increasing the diversity of stories by hiring a more diverse staff: “The stories you end up with are different if you have a staff that’s diverse. You can hear it on the air, in terms of the stories that show up.”

The good news is that the data supports this notion. Women reporters tend to produce acts with slightly more female interviewees than male reporters.

Relationship between gender of contributors and gender of interviewees

Acts with mixed gender contributor groups were omitted from this chart.

The surprising news is that women reporters still tend to produce acts with men making up the majority of interviewees. On average, acts produced by women reporters have interviewee dialogue that is 64.5% male. So even if the reporters on the show were all women, the interviewees would still be majority male.

Interestingly, the gender gap has slowly been closing over the two decades that This American Life has been on air.

Gender breakdown of dialogue by role over time

Note that Ira Glass's lines have again been omitted to avoid confounding the total word counts and contributor word counts.

Women have been speaking slightly more. This improvement is largely because women contributors as a group have been given more airtime. Curiously, the percentage of airtime held by female interviewees has not followed that upward trend and instead has remained stagnant.

Using this data alone, it's hard to say exactly why contributors or interviewees are more frequently men. Further research is necessary regarding the pipeline of men and women producers and contributors, the diversity of producers’ contact networks, and the gender dynamics at play when pitching a story or being interviewed.

To that end, we’ve open-sourced the data used in this analysis, which includes all the people who’ve appeared on the radio program and the number of words they've said in each episode. There’s also episode and act metadata, which includes year, title, description, and tags. This data is easily accessible in this Google Sheet. You can also find the code used in our analysis on Github

As we continue working toward gender equality and tracking progress, it’s clear we still have room to improve so that one day, we hear women's thoughts, experiences, and ideas as often as we hear men's.