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Time Magazine Really Likes Dudes


Time magazine was founded in 1923 as the first and only news weekly in the United States. Originally critiqued by tweedy intellectuals for its focus on pop culture and the entertainment industry, Time covered events through the lens of famous individuals, a sort of Great Man theory of the news that compelled its editors to put a single person on the cover of each issue.

And, actually, Great Man might be the best way to put it. It took Time 21 issues until it finally ran with a woman on the cover; they would wait another 28 issues until they did it again. Several years on record feature precisely one woman on any cover and a full 37 years of Time‘s history have women on the cover 10% of the time or less.

Which is a rather data-heavy way to say this: Time magazine really likes dudes.



We scraped a database of every Time magazine cover between 1923 and 2013 before we ran a simple data categorization job. We asked our contributors to mark if there was a person on the cover and, if so, what race and gender they were. In Time‘s later years, it was much more common to see an image of a concept (like a dollar sign) or a stylized graphic (like a plummeting stock graph) or a gigantic hat (like a gigantic hat), so the raw numbers of people on Time covers did drop a bit. You’ll notice that to the right side of the graph above.*

By taking the demographic details our contributors provided, we were able to look into what sort of people made the cover. And, if we were to answer the title of Time‘s cravenly provocative 2013 piece “Do Women Really Want Equality?“, the historical answer, at least according to the graphic department at Time is, “meh, not really.”

It’s Raining Men

You’d expect Time to have something approaching an equal gender distribution for its cover stories. After all, its a news magazine, not a niche publication. If you were looking at Vogue, you’d expect more women on the cover. That’s understandable, as it’s a fashion magazine aimed primarily at women. If you were looking at Portable Restaurant Operator, you’d expect a bunch of port-o-johns on the cover. That’s because it’s a magazine about itinerant toilets. But for a news magazine? You’d hope that things would equal out.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

86%. Eighty-six. Those are the odds that any Time magazine cover containing a person is actually a Time magazine cover containing a guy. That’s over 90 years and over 3200 issues: not the smallest sample size. The gender discrepancy is highest in the earlier years, when only six women appeared front and center over the first 144 issues. There have been multiple years, as late as 1942, with just a single woman on the cover.

 Screen_Shot_2015-01-19_at_2.06.47_PM  First_Woman_in_Time Screen_Shot_2015-01-19_at_2.21.48_PM
The first cover of Time The first woman on the cover  The most provocative cover

It’s Raining Less Men

But as times change, Time‘s changed. Just taking a look at last year’s cover imagery, you’ll see far more women and certainly nothing like the discrepancy cited above. It’s simply a more diverse collection of images, whether you’re looking at Laverne Cox, Mary Barra, or a coil of butter. The ratio of women to men is getting more equal and, at the very least, we shouldn’t expect to ever see anything like 1925, where there was a single woman on the cover.

In fact, to give Time its due, it’s never strictly been a boy’s club. After naming their first “Man of the Year” in 1927, the magazine named its first “Woman of the Year” less than a decade later. (That woman? Wallis Simpson, the lady who inspired Edward VIII to abdicate his throne.) In fact, the very next year, Time named Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong May-ling their “Couple of the Year.” Both those honors were bestowed in Time‘s early era.

But 86% is still 86%. That number is a reminder of how skewed the news media used to be and how far we’ve come since. There are still years where men vastly outnumber women on Time, but usually there’s a fairly understandable reason. Take 2012, for instance, which was an election year: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama each appeared on the cover on multiple occasions.

We also ran a similar job on Sports Illustrated covers we’ll be talking about in the coming month. And while we thought about doing one for O Magazine too, we decided to save our contributors the chore of clicking “Yes, Oprah is on the cover” a couple hundred times.

If you want to run a data categorization job, just contact us. We can get you started, walk you through the prcoess, and help you enrich your data.

*In 1937, you might note that it seems as though there are more than 52 issues. That’s simply because there were several covers with both men and women present, so the total looks a bit high.

Justin Tenuto

Justin Tenuto

Justin writes things at Figure Eight. He enjoys books about robots and aliens, baking bread, and is pretty sure he can beat you at pingpong.