Getting Engaged: Women and News

02/04/2014 05:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

Women are language-hungry relative to men, spending twice as much time trading information with others, and spend twice as many hours absorbed in novels. Why is it then that men consume so much more news? A study released last year shows that women possess a shallower working knowledge of current events: Where males can answer 1 of 3 questions on current events correctly, women succeed on 1 out of 5. More than yet another study on gender differences, this finding speaks to a profound gap that has the potential to limit women's contributions across many domains. Non-fiction -- especially news and current events -- is the primary source of learning after our formal education, the way we hone expertise and develop interests. Non-readers without a threshold fluency in political, cultural, and technological advancements will struggle to use trends to their advantage. Perhaps even more importantly, without confidence in their informedness, they will fail to take a seat at the metaphorical tables of power.

Advertisers and women's advocates alike raise the question of why fewer women are tuning in. Front runners explanations are that women have less leisure time due to more unpaid work, and that media content includes a male bias. There is likely truth to both, but I'd offer a third as of yet unmentioned driver of the readership gap: The prior knowledge required to understand the news may alienate women more than it does men. It may not be a matter of comprehension, but of confidence in one's own preparedness to fully engage.

Every reader bridges vast gaps at the start of a news story, though we rarely acknowledge the supreme difficulty in understanding the breadth of information covered in the Times or WSJ. Challenged by news content myself, I once organized a session on how to engage with current events in a Women's Leadership conference. We asked a speaker with experience in the US State Department to facilitate. She declined, personally offended that we would delegate such an elementary topic to a woman of her experiences. Even those with the best intentions may overlook the requirements for thoughtful news engagement, and the potential alienating effects of such requirements.

Regardless of whether we acknowledge prior knowledge as a barrier to readership, this hurdle should, prima facie, affect the sexes in the same way. However, from the same starting place, I argue women are more likely to believe they're unprepared for the paper. Study after study show a gendered confidence gap: Women feel less secure about their own knowledge base and content mastery than men. In Lean In, Sandberg explores the disparity in depth, citing research on male overconfidence alongside an example from her own life: She prepared exam content perfectly, and felt underprepared, while her brother under-prepared, and felt perfectly confident. I recently asked a male news junkie to help me out with some technical terminology on a particular story. He had no better understanding than I did, but was unfazed by what I perceived as a lack of preparedness. Women and men may enter a news story with the same context, yet men charge headlong undaunted, while women feel disinvited.

Evidence for this explanation is found in the recent success of theSkimm, a daily newsletter targeted at women that tackles the barrier of prior knowledge head on. Known for its pithy, comedic language, what really differentiates theSkimm is it's concise articulation of the necessary context for the stories it includes. Example:

THE STORY: The UN is having a get-together in Switzerland about Syria and they invited Iran.
WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Syria's been in a civil war for three years. Back in June 2012, the US, Russia, and other major powers agreed that Syria needed to figure out a political transition. That's easier said than done, since some (like the US) would prefer Syrian President Assad to step down, and some (like Russia) would prefer he stay.

TheSkimm's authors normalize the need for a back-story refresh, inviting us in if we are semi-informed, but shaky on the details. In an age when the reader is fragmented, media that acknowledges and addresses the hurdle of prior context will become increasingly important for women and men.

The market segment of news consumers rewarding this approach -- direct prose with forgiving contextual grounding, and accessible packaging- is still vastly underserved. TheSkimm received $1 million as a vote of confidence from HomeBrew investors last year. By addressing simple behavioral barriers to women's consumption, innovative news providers will capture a lucrative segment, while strengthening women's informedness.