Times Obit Writers Far Prefer Dudes' Deaths

Still upset about that lack of gender equality in book reviews? Consider this more frightening and fundamental imbalance: so far in the month of August, the NYT has published 78 obituaries. And only six of them were for women.

And for the year 2010 to date, the NYT has chronicled the deaths of 606 men, and only 92 women.

Bear in mind that the population of women in the U.S. exceeds that of men, and is nearly neck and neck worldwide.

This disparity in coverage has gone on for years, virtually unnoticed in a society that decades ago granted full equality to women, and has seen huge strides in the prominence of women in virtually all fields of endeavor.

And not only does it show no signs of getting better — it's actually getting worse.

In a September 2006 "Talk To The Newsroom" interview, NYT obituaries editor Bill McDonald was asked about the lack of what a concerned reader referred to as "gender parity" in the section. His stunning response somehow slipped by unnoticed.

"Ask me in another generation," McDonald replied. "Really. The people whose obits are appearing in our pages now largely shaped the world of the 1940's, 50's and 60's, and the movers and shakers in those eras were predominantly white men."

Seriously? We were so struck by the seeming ludicrousness of that statement that we devoted several hours to a painstaking count of NYT obituaries in 1990. That's two decades ago, long enough in the past that the supposed disparity noted by McDonald should have been even more pronounced. Right?

Wrong. What we found was a disparity between men and women nearly identical to the extraordinary current gender split.

Of 691 NYT obituaries published in 1990, only 92 of them were of women — almost exactly replicating the 2010 numbers.

So what's going on? Are the world's prominent women — the ones deserving of NYT obituaries — simply living forever? In the last two decades, has there been zero growth in the number of notable women who've died? Does it stand to reason that no more women have worked their way into the limelight in the last twenty years than in the previous twenty?

No, no, and no. In fact, what the numbers make plain is that the NYT still makes no significant effort to ferret out the stories of important women's lives, from unconventional sources — and instead fills its columns with only the most obvious candidates for coverage.

Obituaries go first and foremost to the famous: we accept that, and acknowledge McDonald's point that we still live in a society dominated by a predominantly male power structure. We recognize that for all the advances that have been made by women, the world still too often rewards men with media attention, and denies women the spotlight they deserve. As McDonald went on to say:

Those generations of white men are now passing from the scene; hence you're seeing a disproportionate number of them. In a generation or less, I suspect that the Obits pages (no doubt entirely digital by then) will be filled with stories of women and members of minorities who made contributions at a time when the world finally allowed them to.

But as the gold standard of American journalism, it should fall to the NYT to aggressively find and chronicle the lives of women who deserve attention in the obituary column right now — women whose rich lives and notable achievements warrant the honor of recognition when they die.

Is there no female equivalent to the man who invented the Cheeto? Or the man who designed the Greek coffee cup? Those are but two of the dozens of obituaries in the last year commemorating men who weren't particularly famous, but whose achievements earned them attention on the NYT obits page.

"To me," McDonald said in the 2006 interview, "the Obit page is not a reflection of the times in which we live. It's a mirror on a past that is slipping away."

That's simply not true. But if you doubt us, look at the NYT Magazine's well-executed annual "The Lives They Lived" issue, which brilliantly shapes its essays around the present, not the past. In its 2009 edition, eight out of 23 subjects were women — more than three times the gender ratio of the NYT obits page.

It's time for McDonald to stop making excuses for his failures, and to withdraw his sweeping and false assessments of recent history. He must immediately direct his staff (we count eight regular contributors) to seek out more stories of noteworthy women's lives, ones that will give his page a desperately needed balance — and more accurately reflect the contribution women have made to society in the last fifty years.

This post originally appeared on The NYTPicker. Republished with permission.

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