NPR’s sexist blunder is proof that women’s work isn’t just overlooked—it’s erased

This will make you want to scream.
This will make you want to scream.
Image: Unsplash/Jason Rosewell
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Writing a book is a big deal. Being invited to discuss that book on National Public Radio is an occasion for joy, too.

But you know what sucks? When these two realities converge—and you, the co-author of said book, receive no credit.

That’s what happened to Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature and German at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. On June 30, her book, It’s Football, Not Soccer (and Vice Versa): On the History, Emotion, and Ideology Behind One of the Internet’s Most Ferocious Debates, was featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” in a segment with journalist Anders Kelto.

Weineck co-authored the book—which, in her words, explores “the screeching fury that, across the globe, greets the word ‘soccer'”—with Stefan Szymanski, a well-known sports economist at the University of Michigan. Kelto conducted extensive, recorded interviews with both Szymanski and Weineck for the segment. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to NPR. Kelto not only cut all of Weineck’s portion of the interview from the segment, he neglected to mention that Weineck had co-authored the book at all, attributing the work exclusively to Szymanksi.

The story, which Weineck recounts in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, is one that many women can likely relate to. That’s because women’s contributions in the workplace aren’t just overlooked—they can also be actively, explicitly erased.

Conveniently “left out”

As Weineck explains, the day before the segment ran, she and Syzmanski received an email. The message alerted them of the segment’s air time, with one caveat: “Oh, and because of the way the story came together, I was only able to use clips from Stefan — sorry, Silke!!!!!”

Weineck, Syzmanski, and nearly all of Weineck’s friends (a sizable crew of influential academics and NPR addicts) were incensed—even more so when they found that Kelto didn’t even mention that she was a co-author of the book. And despite the supposed lack of space in the segment, Kelto found time to squeeze in an interview with another man, who, as Weineck writes, “repeats what the first guy with the British accent said.” Somehow, another man’s authority was required to explain her own argument.

It’s not “unconscious bias”

After Weineck, Syzmanski, and others sent emails to NPR condemning their decision to not acknowledge Weineck, Kelto finally replied.

“Calling Stefan ‘author’ instead of ‘co-author’ was an oversight,” Kelto wrote, sans exclamation points. He said that NPR would issue a correction, which they did.

NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, also wrote a column on July 12 explaining NPR’s investigation into what had happened. Jensen writes that from Kelto’s perspective, the radio story was never intended to be specifically about the book that Weineck and Syzmanski co-authored; they were being interviewed as experts for a broader, but separate, story about the way that British people use the terms “soccer” and “football.” That said, Jensen writes that “Szymanski, by contrast, told me that for him and Weineck, ‘it was always about the book.'”

As Jensen notes, it’s also true that the focus of stories can change over time as journalists report them out. But as she acknowledges, that doesn’t explain how Weineck’s name got dropped as co-author—nor does that explain why it is that women always seem to be the ones whose voices wind up getting cut. “Many newsrooms, including NPR’s, are grappling with an uncomfortable reality that they interview far more men than women,” Jensen writes.

If we’re going to change that reality, it’s important to stop treating the erasure of women’s voices as a simple oversight. As Weineck notes, Kelto and his team at NPR did not just leave out her name as co-author, they entirely erased her knowledge, expertise, and accomplishments from the narrative, while acting as if they had no control over the decisions they actively made.

“I suspect he would have dotted his i’s with hearts, if he could have,” writes Weineck, sardonically, of Kelto’s email alerting her that she’d been cut out of the segment. “Not that he had anything to do with my erasure: The story just came together that way, you understand; there was no human involvement.”

What happened to Weineck wasn’t just a simple mistake. Removing her quotes, neglecting mention her authorship, and interviewing another man in her stead were conscious, voluntary choices. As anyone who’s worked in media knows, stories don’t just “come together” on their own. Journalists actively shape stories by deciding what quotes to put in and what to leave out.

There’s an important takeaway from Weinsteck’s story. In discussing workplace sexism and describing the systemic obstacles that women and minorities face, our language is often laden with words like “overlooked,” “bypassed,” and “underrepresented.”

Countless studies show that qualified women and people of color are frequently bypassed for promotions, jobs, and raises they deserve. But these verbs are misleading, because managers, human resources representatives, and others so often  use them in the passive voice. They deflect responsibility to protect whoever is doing the hiring or promoting—which is unsurprising, given that the person who’s doing the overlooking is so often a white, straight man.

It’s time we stop pretending that discrimination is just an innocent mistake. When people ignore or erase women’s work, it’s often because they have deemed women’s contributions to be inferior to those of their male counterparts. It’s worth noting that this happened at NPR, one of the world’s most well-regarded institutions for truth-telling; this kind of thing can happen at all manner of workplaces.

If we want to prevent similar manifestations of sexism at work, we have to stop giving the people who fail to give women proper credit a free pass. This ought to be not only a shared value, but also a shared responsibility—amongst everyone in every workplace.

This story has been updated to include NPR’s response to Weineck’s article and subsequent investigation.