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At the time when many discussions about big data focus on risks and privacy concerns, Joy Johnson, SFU’s vicepresident, research and international, welcomes the opportunity to highlight examples of technology being used “for good.”Supplied

The call for advancing gender equality is not new, yet persistent gaps suggest more effort is needed. Research plays an important role by pinpointing equality shortfalls, such as the wage gap and lack of women on corporate boards. Now an innovative research tool, spearheaded by Simon Fraser University (SFU) and advocacy group Informed Opinions, is helping to measure the presence of women’s voices in Canadian news media.

Called the Gender Gap Tracker, the tool leverages big data analytics and text data mining to provide a real-time analysis of the balance of quotes from women and men in news sources with the goal to highlight – and address – gender imbalance. Through SFU, the collected data is available to other researchers across the country.

“This marries our values around equity and inclusion with our expertise in big data to make a difference to society,” says Joy Johnson, SFU’s vice-president, research and international, who believes it is important to remove the barriers preventing equal representation of women in society as well as universities.

Dr. Johnson’s effort to advance gender equity predates her 2014 appointment at SFU, when she served as the scientific director for the Institute of Gender and Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. “In that role, part of my work was to increase opportunities for women and also advance the understanding of gender in research,” she says, adding that research that does not consider gender often has adverse outcomes.

Evidence suggests that diverse teams – which include men and women, people from different racial groups and various life experiences – make better decisions, she explains. “We know that diversity and inclusion are good for science and research excellence because people from different backgrounds see issues from different perspectives and can illuminate gaps in our knowledge.”

SFU’s dedication to gender equity is part of a Canada-wide movement to balance gender representation, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, says Dr. Johnson. “We know that women are underrepresented in STEM. And since we want to encourage girls to pursue such careers, we need to provide them with role models, for example, by highlighting women experts in the media.”

SFU was inspired to “dig deep to see whether women researchers were represented in news stories,” she says. The initial analysis showed that it was mostly male SFU professors who were stepping up to be interviewed, which prompted the university to partner with Informed Opinions and provide training for women professors to advance their comfort and skills to speak as experts in their fields.

From the shift to include more women’s voices from SFU over the past two years came the realization that “there was a lot of interest to create awareness about gaps in gender representation in media across Canada,” says Dr. Johnson.

The Gender Gap Tracker, spearheaded by the team of SFU professor Maite Taboada, Department of Linguistics, now allows online visitors to select date ranges and/or specific news outlets to see the percentage of men versus women quoted online. Since the data is publicly available, it can help media to recognize and address shortfalls in seeking out women as experts – it can also assist academic institutions in encouraging women to share their expertise.

Another example where SFU leverages its research strengths and advanced research computing infrastructure for furthering social change relates to the opioid crisis, says Dr. Johnson. “Our researchers are looking at certain patterns and indicators that can help us understand the opioid crisis and come up with a better response.”

At the time when many discussions about big data focus on risks and privacy concerns, Dr. Johnson welcomes the opportunity to highlight examples of technology being used “for good.”


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.