Is The Daily Show Sexist? Use the 6 Degrees of Sexism Test to judge for yourself

by cv harquail on July 9, 2010

The media storm surrounding Jezebel’s claim that The Daily Show is sexist has tangled up our common assumptions about what does or does not make an organization sexist.

Whether or not an organization is “sexist”–or for that matter racist, classist, sustainable, Mormon, Black, etc. – matters to the organization’s members and to its audience.

Our judgments of sexism influence how we respond to an organization, shape how the organization’s members feel about themselves and their participation in the organization, and can damage the organization’s overall viability. And, our judgments affect an organization’s reputation and goodwill among the audience, reducing the organization’s social standing and influence.

201007091038.jpgIt seems like everybody wants to have a say, in the decision over The Daily Show’s sexism.

First Jezebel’s Irin Carmon, then media critics, then well-regarded feminists, and finally the women of The Daily Show themselves have joined the conversation. Folks are tossing around one judgment here and another judgment there, using ill-defined criteria often rather carelessly. So how can we know?

How can we evaluate whether The Daily Show, or any other organization, is sexist or not?

One strategy is to use the handy Six Degrees of Sexism test!

6 Degrees of Sexism Test

The 6 Degrees of Sexism Test applies several criteria, including:

1. The leader’s behavior
2. The organization’s demographic composition

3. The experiences of people within the organization

4. The organization’s practices & systems

5. The organization’s product, and

6. The organization’s social impact

Individually, some of these criteria are more definitive than others. Some criteria are more ambiguous, and still other criteria are inconclusive at best and misleading at worst. Because judgments of sexism can have serious consequences and because few individual criteria offer enough “proof”, we usually look for more than one indicator of sexism.

The Daily Show has been accused of being sexist because..

  • Jon Stewart (the leader) is sexist
  • The organization’s demographic composition suggests that it discriminates against women,
  • Some people have claimed that their negative experiences within the organization were due to gender-based discrimination, and
  • The organization’s product appears to be sexist (e.g., the on air personalities and interview subjects are disproportionately male).

– Interestingly, afaik, there haven’t been explanations of actual systems at The Daily Show that are sexist. Instead, people have focused on the outcomes of these practices (e.g., employee demographics, product qualities) to infer that the systems are sexist. And,

– There have been few critiques that have used The Daily Show’s social influence to demonstrate that it is sexist.

We can consider each criterion in turn, and evaluate for ourselves whether we think that The Daily Show is, in our judgment, sexist.

1. Is The Daily Show sexist because the leader (Jon Stewart) is sexist?

People like to use the behavior of the top management as an indicator of the organization’s overall character because we believe that leaders “set the tone” of the organization, and imbue the organization with their own values.

While this is often true, it is also true that leaders don’t always represent personally what the organization collectively stands for. As a criterion for judging the sexism of the organization itself, the leader’s behavior can be compelling data but is insufficient. Whether or not you think Jon Stewart is a sexist *&#^k, that’s just not enough data. You have to know whether or not his attitude sets the tone and shapes the organizational practices of The Daily Show.

2. Is The Daily Show sexist because the majority of the organization’s employees are male?

Using this criterion to judge sexism relies on two assumptions. First, you have to assume that an organization is the sum of its parts. Second, you have to believe that these objective characteristics predict relevant values and behaviors. If you have an organization of disproportionately tall employees, is it a “tall” organization? And, do these tall employees behave in “tall” ways?

If the employees are largely men, then the organization is sexist (so the logic goes). But, you also have to assume that being male means that someone is likely to behave in ways that are sexist.

With regard to The Daily Show, if the demographic content of the organization is 40% women and 60% men, you might compare that to the 51/49% distribution of men and women in the total population and conclude that The Daily Show more or less hires a proportional amount of men and women. But here’s the kicker—if all of those people (men and women) behave in sexist ways, does it matter whether some of them are women? Nope, you can have a sexist organization that is predominately female. And, you can have a non-sexist / anti-sexist organization of all men.

The demographic composition of the organization does not by itself demonstrate that an organization is sexist.

3. Is The Daily Show sexist because employees experience the organization as sexist?

This is another tough one. Arguably, if “the organization” is sexist and discriminates against employees along gendered and racialized lines, employees will experience this sexism.

If employees report that they don’t feel discriminated against and they don’t feel that their work environment is sexist, we often conclude that the organization is not sexist. This is one argument that the women of The Daily Show have made in defense of their organization. Individually and collectively, they explain, they have not experienced The Daily Show (or Jon Stewart) as sexist. On the other hand, the two female ex-employees of The Daily Show who were interviewed by Jezebel claimed that the harsh treatment at TDS was due to their gender. However, gender doesn’t explain the similar harsh treatment that former male employees have reported.

Before we take anyone’s word for it, we have to consider how well-equipped these employees are to recognize their experience as sexism or not. It can seem harsh to question the reports of the employees – surely, they know what they experienced. But do they know what sexism is and how to distinguish between a bad experience and a bad experience that is due to sexist behavior, attitudes, and systems? And, do the women and men experience and notice  efforts to reduce sexist experiences within the organization?

4. Are The Daily Show’s practices & work systems sexist in their application? And, are they sexist in their outcomes?


This is the most critical criterion, and in my mind the only one that, alone, could provide enough data for a conclusive judgment. But it’s still very complicated.

Organizational systems can be designed to be sexist in their intent (e.g., only women are allowed to be makeup artists) and they can be design to let sexism slip through unchallenged. These days, intentionally sexist systems are harder to find. Instead, it’s the systems that fail to challenge sexism that indicate whether an organization is sexist.

The Daily Show has some hiring processes that aim to prevent sexism. The Daily Show evaluates the writing samples of applicants using a “blind” process: applicant’s names and identifying information are removed from the submissions before they are evaluated. (Compare this to the practice at American Apparel, where potential employees have to submit photos of themselves with their job applications to prove that they are sexistly sexy enough.)

On the other hand, the concentration of men in higher status, “line” positions (e.g., writers, on air personalities) and the concentration of women in administrative, managerial, and support positions could be taken to suggest that The Daily Show’s systems let sexism through.

Then again, The Daily Show has been appreciated for family/life-friendly flexibility by both women and men.

In one of the more ‘organizational’ analyses of the issue so far, Amanda Hess writes:

If you haven’t considered the societal forces and ingrained prejudices that may contribute to gender disparities in your hiring practices, your hiring practices are probably sexist.

5. Is The Daily Show’s product sexist?

s the show that The Daily Show creates sexist? Does it prefer men over women, focus on male defined topics to the exclusion of female defined topics, and/or promote, display or leave unchallenged sexist attitudes?

Again, another tricky evaluation. Both the male-to-female ratio of guests on the show, and the male-to-female ratio of on-camera personalities heavily favor men. Defenders of The Daily Show rely on the pipeline argument, explaining that the pool of female comedians is relatively low. A similar argument is made to explain the dominance of male authors, actors, and national figures who come on the show to be interviewed.

And how about the content of what The Daily Show covers? I have yet to see a content analysis of TDS’s coverage, but my sense is that, while they don’t cover as many issues on the top of feminists’ lists as I might like, they do cover issues that women as well as men care about (e.g., gay rights).

Finally, consider the last criterion:

6. What kind of impact is The Daily Show having on the segments of society that it influences? Is that impact sexist?

Progressive that I am, I’d have to argue that the impact of The Daily Show is a —qualified— win for women and anti-sexist men, although the link between their product and the quality of their social influence is a long one.

As much as it tries to be an ‘equal opportunity offender’ and skewer the Left as well as the Right, The Daily Show serves a progressive agenda. By calling attention to and making fun of regressive, racist, sexist, denialist, anti-scientific and plain’ole old ineffective politics and social trends, The Daily Show’s influence rebuts the forces that support sexism.

To be sure, whether or not an organization is sexist is a complex call—There are arguments for and against The Daily Show’s sexism, on every criterion. And, as much as we’d like to “pinpoint” our conclusion on one obvious example or another, it’s the whole picture of the organization, a picture created by considering all 6 dimensions, that ultimately informs our judgment of whether or not the organization is sexist.

I’ve had an occasional window into The Daily Show from family and friends who have worked there. I’ve heard an array of examples that lead me to conclude that The Daily Show as an organization is less sexist and trying harder than most media producing organizations. I would like to see them do more to address sexism with their product (e.g., more women on air, more women interviewees, more rigorous questions for women interviewees) and within their organization (e.g., take an explicitly anti-sexist stand and create systems that would support this).

That said, when I give use the 6 Degrees of Sexism Test on The Daily Show, it squeaks by with a ‘pass’.

And you? If you’re a Daily Show viewer, what’s your judgment? Do you think The Daily Show is sexist, or not?

Notes:  If you aren’t sure what “sexism” or “sexist behavior” is, please check out Feminism 101.
No mansplaining, please.

See also:
Will Newsweek Respond to Claims of Sexism?
What Makes an Organization Authentically “Mormon”?

Images:…/Kristen+Schaal , Comedy Central


Spiffy McBang July 9, 2010 at 2:31 pm

If TDS squeaks by, can you give an example of something that passes with flying colors?

cv harquail July 9, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Spiffy, that’s a 6 million dollar question. I would hazard a guess that The Rachel Maddow show would do better than TDS, although I have no data or inside info on that. And, not because Maddow is female and a female ‘head’ makes an organization automatically more pro-equality and less sexist…

Maddow is a ‘systems thinker’ and a political activist, someone who is conscious of sexism, an avowed feminist, and working hard to be authentic to those values in her role as the focus of a show. In contrast (and along the same line of thinking as Brandann Hill-Mann at, I think The Colbert Report might fare less well than TDS.

I’m wondering if you raise that question, though, to point out how very few comedy shows or commentary shows could even be considered as possibly not sexist. The Daily Show, and possibly The Rachel Maddow Show, are likely leading the pack. cvh

Spiffy McBang July 9, 2010 at 6:44 pm

“I’m wondering if you raise that question, though, to point out how very few comedy shows or commentary shows could even be considered as possibly not sexist.”

Broader: TV shows in general, of any type. I wasn’t trying to point anything out, though- I really didn’t know what kind of answer you’d give. There could be a lot and I would never realize it. But this entire episode has puzzled me precisely because, as you say, it’s always seemed like TDS is ahead of the game in regards to these issues.

If that’s in fact the case, then even if there is something to be investigated, it seems like the issue is blowing up simply because of shock that Jon Stewart is the target of such accusations. While not a surprising reaction, it smacks of people ignoring worse situations simply because we have this resigned acceptance that almost everywhere else sucks and it’s not going to change. I realize those worse examples of sexism/racism/etc. have probably been hammered in the past and people are tired of talking about them, but to have it result in piling onto one of the least problematic organizations can’t help anyone but the powers that be.

Also, I wonder how much Maddow controls the makeup of her staff. If it’s as complete as Stewart, then I’d agree about her show; if not, you’re still probably right, but more possibilities arise. As for Colbert, Hill-Mann might be correct in a general sense, but her evidence is flawed. Her comment about no women correspondents is irrelevant- there are no correspondents at all (unless you count Jeff Goldblum occasionally coming on and being ridiculous). I also find it odd that she thinks, or seems to think, that he’s actually being offensive to progressives; I’ve never heard anyone actually take his words on-air as offensive except in the superficial light in which they’re intended. And it *seems* as though he has a higher percentage of female guests, though I have no numbers for that and it may well not be the case.

However, none of this speaks to the makeup of his staff, and Jessica Valenti once got bounced from an appearance because he didn’t want to push “The Purity Myth” due to religious conflicts. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Colbert ended up behind TDS in some measurable way, but I don’t think it would be by a lot.

fm April 1, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I have never met Jon Stewart, but the TDS writers I’ve met are sexist. Not in a mean way- they’re very nice and cool- just condescending and “superior”- It felt like a boys club. Just look at the facts- how many writers on the show are women? One or two? How many of the highly paid, above the line, creative jobs are held by women? Hmmmm and where did Liz Winstead go? and why? remember that story? But I think it’s a mistake to single out the daily show- the NYC tv-comedy scene is pretty sexist- from my experience- yes, it’s true, there are a rare few of token females that are trotted out to suggest otherwise, but please- get real-anyone who argues against my point is really being intellectually dishonest- and seriously, this is not a joke- NYC is an expensive place to live. As a woman, I want to climb the ladder just like my male counterparts- not because I have something to prove- it’s because I want to do things like- duh, financially support myself and buy an apartment (you know, a place to live?)- which in NYC is not so easy if you’re continually relegated to support-staff positions that are below the line- *(below the line is a place where people break in and get boned on their overtime and work 20 hour days for $150/day) Please, seriously, Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Colbert and Mr. O’brien and Mr. Michaels and Mr. Letterman and Mr. Fallon and Mr. Leno and Mr. Smigel and Mr. Breckman and Mr. Levitan and and even you, Ms. Fey, why aren’t all of you making a point to allow more women to share in your successes It’s not because women aren’t creative and capable (like having so many women writers on your staff that it’s 50/50) -Oooooh was that scary- to imagine that- And what is this urge to relegate women to support positions all about- so women just belong in the below the line section- with no guild representation, no help getting an agent, no royalties- no legacy to help their families- no apartment in a safe neighborhood unless paid for by daddy or rich husband- no overtime- just work-work-work-work-work and work around the clock, 20 hours a day on call for you! Ordering your lunches- making copies of your scripts at all hours of the day and night- Again and again and again and again. FYI- women taking positions as writers’ assistants just to get used- and then ignored. Women take underpaid writers’ assistant jobs with the hopes that their work will be, at the very least, seen and evaluated by their masters. It’s an apprentice role. We understand we are there to serve you, and are happy to do so- but I am so furious that I personally toiled for years and years and years as a writers assistant without having my contributions recognized. Most writers I worked for wouldn’t even take the time to ask me if I was working on anything- except for their lunch order. I got used. Seriously. I had a dream and I worked hard and paid my dues- and I got screwed, screwed and screwed some more.

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