Monday, September 19, 2011

The Way I See It: Diverse Perspectives Matter

Jill Abramson, new executive director for the New York Times, is in some hot water over claiming that being a woman brought no change in perspective for the paper:
Do you think any readers noticed it when I was a managing editor and had a major role in the play and picking of stories online and in print? The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true.
Several women who study gender in journalism share a different opinion, among them June O. Nicholson, who explains that:
collectively the presence of women as top editors and leaders does make a difference. Part of this is life experience. Diversity among editors and top management helps ensure that a variety of perspectives are a part of the decision-making and coverage of issues. Diversity, including gender diversity, should be an important consideration in every newsroom and company.
Abramson claims gender-neutrality as a good thing, and it's easy to see how someone could take the statement that women manage news material "differently" and spin it to the conclusion that they manage it "worse" than men. Her stance doesn't seem like it was intended to alienate women, but what's at stake when we ignore the diversity of perspectives, deny the fact that different life experiences manifest themselves through our work?

Consider this report from the Directors Guild of America, which found that 77% of all television episodes produced in 2010-2011 were directed by white men. The site includes a list of shows that hired no women or minority directors for the entire season (among them, iCarly, which is interesting to me since its target audience is young girls).

Maybe it's tempting to say that it doesn't matter who directs these shows or who edits our major media outlets, tempting to claim that gender-neutrality would be a step away from gender norms but research (and life experience) suggests that perspective matters and the way you frame your identity is a large part of perspective.

Media has a tremendous influence on the way we view our world. Television shows and news reports are a window into our frame of reality. If that window is overwhelmingly controlled by the dominant segment of society, that dominance remains unchecked. Bringing in other viewpoints gives us the opportunity to examine things through new lenses and deconstruct the assumptions surrounding our existing frames of reference.

Connected to this is the way we consume information to begin with. Are you more likely to seek out information if it comes from a particular lens? Chances are, the answer is yes. We like to find affirming points of view, points that support our own ways of thinking.

For instance, my Google Reader feed contains a lot of feminist parenting blogs. There are days when I can become immersed in the language of these discussions and almost forget that this is a minority viewpoint. Similarly, a study I wrote about a while back suggesting that parents who equally share parenting responsibilities seek out social groups that support that decision and avoid those who don't. This suggests that even when we make decisions that are specifically designed to go against the grain (perhaps even because we would like to enact change in a larger societal norm), we are more comfortable when the abnormality of our choices isn't pointed out to us.

PhD in Parenting recently tackled some of the issues surrounding this phenomenon in a post titled "Is shame a barrier to social change?" Here, the question is whether advocating for one thing (such as support for breastfeeding or the prevention of teen pregnancies) is the equivalent of shaming everyone who falls outside of that scope (such as shaming formula feeding mothers or all mothers who had babies as teenagers).

It is hard to accept other perspectives as equally valid without questioning our own because we get much-needed support and affirmation by seeing other people agree with us. This is especially true when online technologies have made it possible to craft communities outside of geographical constraints. I can talk to feminists mothers all over the globe and feel like I'm not alone. You can find someone who is just as enamored as you are by comic books and vintage superhero toys. By honing in on these shared experiences, we strengthen our identities and build confidence in our ideas.

But we run the risk of shutting out the opportunity to learn more, to do more, to grow more. Valuing diverse perspectives can be hard work, but it is necessary work to illuminate the gaps we've left in our own thinking (and believe me, there are gaps--the world is complex).

What does watching television overwhelmingly created by white men do to our collective view of reality? Does consuming news edited by women open the possibility for new ways of looking at old issues? What can listening without needing to defend our own identity do for our ways of knowing and belonging?

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