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A Quantification of Voices

Gastropod, the six-year-old independent podcast by journalists Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that serves up stories about the science and history of food, released a fascinating report last month that comes as the result of a years-long effort to provide what they call “a public and transparent accounting of the diversity of voices represented on the show.”

Titled “Tracking and Increasing the Representation of Diverse Voices,” the report was funded in part by a 2017 grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the science-oriented philanthropic organization also supports other podcasts like Radiolab, Science Friday, and Nerdette. In it, Graber and Twilley contend that “podcasts, and particularly science podcasts, have a responsibility to help combat pervasive bias against women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in our society and our field.” Which is why, towards that end, they sought to develop, implement, and measure various workflow solutions that could help them shore up a thoughtful balance not just of the demographic diversity of the guests they brought onto the program, but also the actual speaking time and topical nature of their appearances. The data produced by those measurements serves as the body of this report.

It should be noted that Gastropod isn’t technically the first podcast to mount this type of initiative. I can think of at least one other show, Flash Forward, that has done things like this in the past. But Graber and Twilley’s effort is distinct for the depth and granularity of their accounting. Thumb through the report, and you’d find extensive discussion of methodology, process, and statistics, along with honest appraisals of what workflow solutions were successful and what weren’t.

To learn more about the report and everything that went into it, I sent a few questions over Graber and Twilley. They kindly obliged:


Hot Pod: Could you talk a bit about how this accounting project affected your actual day-to-day production workflow?

Gastropod: Surveying our interviewees and counting the time for which they spoke took large chunks of time, but it wasn’t part of our day-to-day workflow. In some ways, that was a downside of our method. We didn’t have a tracker we could refer to as we went along, just a result at the end of the year. It would’ve been amazing to have the resources to keep track of this in real-time.

Where this project did affect production workflow was in terms of episode planning. We realized early on, as we evaluated which strategies were turning out to be more successful than others, that being reactive — i.e. picking a topic and then trying to find diverse sources — was going to be less successful than proactively finding diverse sources we could build a topic around. That took a lot of scouring of databases and Twitter lists, looking at conference programs, etc, and it meant that we had to plan much further ahead than we’d been doing. Of course, that was probably a good thing anyway, but it stretched us pretty thin at first!

It also occasionally took some creative thinking to see how we could build an episode around work that maybe wasn’t at first glance obviously a Gastropod story. I don’t think it resulted in dropped stories, but it did mean we didn’t pursue some ideas and listener suggestions in favor of others that already had diverse sources already attached. Nothing about this was easier than we thought (except maybe recruiting and working with our awesome advisory committee), but it has resulted in some amazing episodes. It continues to do so today even after the project officially ended, as we continue to implement the lessons we learned.

HP: In the report, you noted how you weren’t actually able to meet your diversity goals. Why was that?

Gastropod: There were a few reasons. One, we deliberately set goals we thought were pretty ambitious to push ourselves.

Two, the reward for these efforts takes time. Several of the people we wanted to build episodes around ended being in episodes that weren’t ready for release until after the survey period had ended. Since the end of the project year, we’ve made episodes focused around Asian-American chef and invasive species expert Bun Lai, Asian historian Ai Hisano, African-American historian Marcia Chatelain, Native American tribal councillor and cockle expert Robin Little Wing Sigo, Black soil biogeochemist Asmeret Asafaw Berhe, Black materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez, and female plant geneticist Joyce van Eck, among others.

Three, and this was perhaps the most surprising to us: we had been super keen to prioritize female voices, particularly in STEM, but the pool of female BIPOC scientists is smaller than even we had realized. As it turns out, women already only make up 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce: of that already small number of women, just 5.7 percent are Black or African American, 6.4 percent are Hispanic or Latino, and 0.2 percent are Indigenous, according to NSF data. What that means is, for example, just 1.6 percent of all American scientists are Black or African-American women (according to the most recent NSF data).

This project helped us realize that, in order to feature more BIPOC voices talking about science on the show, we might need to feature fewer women scientists — or, in other words, by prioritizing female scientists, we often ended up prioritizing white women over their male BIPOC colleagues. We met and exceeded our goals for gender representation, so, in terms of our diversity goals, this project helped us realize that it often makes more sense for us to interview a BIPOC male scientist rather than a white female scientist. Of course, we are also continuing to work hard to find and interview female BIPOC scientists (e.g. the awesome Asmeret Asafaw Berhe and Ainissa Ramirez, who have starred in episodes this year).

HP: Why did you partner with the Sloan Foundation on this?

Gastropod: As we mentioned in the report, this was an extremely time-consuming project. We anticipated that going in, so even though we really wanted to do it and we knew how important it was, as a two-person independent podcast, it would have been challenging to find the additional time and resources to focus on a project of this ambition and scope without Sloan support. Sloan support also enabled us to recognize our advisory committee with an honorarium, which was important to us, although it in no way covered the time they donated to the project — especially Kristi Lemm, who wrangled the statistical analysis.

In addition, Sloan funds some of the best STEM-focused podcasts out there — us, of course, but also Radiolab, Science Friday, Planet Money, and Nerdette. This research is something that we intended to be useful to all the podcasts in the Sloan family (and beyond), and we’ve shared it with them accordingly.

We’re both very aware that it’s easy to set an abstract goal — increase the representation of diverse voices — but equally easy for that to mean nothing unless you’re measuring it. We weren’t happy with not knowing exactly how we were doing, because we couldn’t tell where we needed to improve or even whether what we were doing to boost diversity was working.

Cynthia also had previous experience co-chairing the Science Byline Counting Project, so she had seen firsthand the importance of data to benchmark performance and push improvement. When Sloan invited us to apply for a grant, this was an obvious project to ask for funding for —  we saw the need, we wanted to do it, and it spoke to their priorities as a foundation, too.

HP: Just to hammer the point home: what is the main thing you’d like people to take away from this?

Gastropod: We can and should do better — and the same applies to our colleagues at other podcasts.

Setting goals and measuring progress is important; doing it publicly is important, too, because it helps keep us all focused.

It’s critical to not only monitor how you’re doing, but also what strategies work best for you, and then to continue to both monitor representation and implement those strategies. We mentioned the Science Byline Counting Project — that project perhaps unsurprisingly demonstrated that men were assigned far more major features in prestigious magazines than women. The results prompted an editor at National Geographic to change his approach to features assignments, which resulted in a far better gender balance. But when he let up his attention, the proportion slipped. His lesson, and one we hope people will take from this project as well, is that this is an ongoing process to ensure diversity — in our case, the diversity of voices heard on podcasts.

Undertaking a project like this is a big investment, but, for us, it’s been incredibly worthwhile in terms of the gaps and biases it reveals, as well as the great episodes that came out of it.


You can find the entirety of the report here, and you can find the show here.