Women's voices are largely silenced in online discussions, new research from Sydney University has found.
A sample from the study, conducted by Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media Dr Fiona Martin, showed that women only make up between 3% and 35% of online commenters on major news services in the US, UK and Australia.
The sample looked at the comment sections of 15 leading news and opinion websites based in these countries, including The Guardian, the New York Times, the BBC, and the ABC.
Websites requiring participants to use their real names by commenting via Facebook engendered more participation from women, the study found. The Texas Tribune (35%), the Orange Country Register (21%), and the Huffington Post (20%) had the highest levels of female participation, along with Australia's The Conversation, where real names are preferred.
On sites where pseudonyms are common, participation was very low, with only 3% of Guardian commenters being women, and 6% of those on the Washington Post.
The findings fit neatly with other research about women's voices in public spaces, which are consistently dominated by men, said Martin in a media release.
Martin added that the dearth of women's voices could actually lead to different interpretations of the news.
"Comments can influence opinion," she said. "Research suggests negative comments reduce readers' opinion of an article, so it's also plausible that an absence of views from women, or migrants or young people could also affect how people interpret online news."
Websites should pay attention to the fact women are not getting involved in online debates, Martin said.
"Comments increase user engagement and therefore revenue. They also provide extra content, production feedback and quality control," she said. "Given there's significant moderation cost to providing a commenting service it's important to make sure its appealing to as many users as possible."
Martin told online publication Women's Agenda the imbalance appears to be driven by the everyday gender dynamics of conversation, in which women are routinely dominated.
"It appears our experience of online conversations is reflecting our gendered experiences of the world at large," she said. "Just like in face-to-face public conversations, like meetings or forums, women are being put off by male voices being adversarial, dismissive and sometimes abusive."
She added that practical limitations prevent women from being involved as well. "Women do more unpaid work around the home and are more likely to be in caring roles – they simply don't have as much time to spend commenting on news websites," she said.