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IN MY OPINION

We need more women academics to step up as experts

We’re building a database of qualified women to help the media find them.

By MEREDITH DAULT | SEP 01 2016

When Naila Keleta-Mae first set out to teach a course focused on the music of pop sensation Beyoncé, she expected the media might show a bit of interest. What she didn’t expect was to find herself pulling all-nighters writing articles for newspapers, or being interviewed by the BBC. But, the University of Waterloo professor of theatre and performance embraced the opportunity to share her work.

“I realized I had access to an audience that would otherwise be inaccessible to me as an academic,” she says, explaining that she wrote her first opinion piece, entitled “Why I’m Teaching a University Course on Beyoncé” for the Huffington Post in 2015 to challenge those critical of popular culture’s slide into the lecture hall. She’s been getting calls ever since.

However, as a woman stepping up to share her expertise by engaging with the media, Dr. Keleta-Mae is still in the minority. Women now account for 60 percent of university graduates and continue to make great strides in fields that were once dominated by men, but their voices are still largely underrepresented in the Canadian media. Independently conducted research released earlier this year by Informed Opinions, a project of Media Action, a non-profit aimed at increasing women’s voices in the news media, indicates that women currently account for only 29 percent of all those quoted or interviewed for mainstream newspaper articles and broadcast segments – up a mere seven percent from two decades ago.

Women frequently hold themselves to a higher standard of authority

One reason is because women, no matter how qualified, are far more likely than men to turn down media interviews. The women we train may write books, teach at well-regarded institutions, hold prestigious awards, run organizations and otherwise know their stuff – and yet many confess that when journalists call seeking their expertise, they often defer to others.

“Too often the women I reach out to say, ‘Sorry, I’m not the right person,’” said a frustrated journalist at one of the roundtable sessions that we held on the issue last fall in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. “They don’t seem to understand that I’m just looking for a conversation – not a book chapter.”

What we’ve learned is that, when it comes to expertise, women frequently hold themselves to a higher standard of authority. So, while a woman may well acknowledge that she knows a great deal about a particular subject, she may shy away from being quoted if she knows that someone, somewhere out there, knows more.

Learning to deal with the media is not part of academic training

It’s something Hilary Young, a professor of law at the University of New Brunswick, remembers grappling with at the start of her teaching career. “Initially I was reluctant to do media,” says Dr. Young, who researches issues like assisted dying and end-of-life care, “especially because when you’re starting out you are often really focused on publishing in journals.” She also notes that learning to deal with the media was not part of her academic training.

To be fair, many women knowledgeable enough to be sought after as experts are time-strapped, too, often juggling demanding jobs with child or elder care. (Interestingly, journalists have told us that no man has ever cited retrieving the kids from daycare as a reason to turn down an interview, yet they hear this frequently from women.) Many are also aware that, as women, they’re more likely to be judged in the public sphere on everything from their tone of voice to their choice of clothing in ways that men, quite simply, are not.

The other issue, of course, is our increasingly lean, 24-hour news cycle requiring journalists to do more and more with less and less, more quickly than ever. “The time factor is still our biggest problem,” said another journalist at a roundtable session. “It’s a daily struggle (to find women). We’re very conscious of it, but at the end of the day, you still need someone to put on the air.” As a result, many end up calling the same experts over and over again because they can’t spare the time to search out new voices.

Informed Opinions has now trained more than 1,200 women

That’s one of the reasons we’re now building ExpertWomen.ca/FemmesExpertes.ca, a database of qualified Canadian women from a range of backgrounds who are willing to make themselves available to the media. Our goal is to make it impossible for any journalist or conference planner to ever again defend having booked yet another all-male panel with the words, “I couldn’t find any expert women.”

And we know they’re out there: Informed Opinions has now trained more than 1,200 women to overcome the challenges, own their expertise and become more comfortable sharing what they know with the world, while at the same time serving as role models. They are women who understand that making a difference can start with a simple “yes” when the media calls.

That’s something that Dr. Young now does regularly, acknowledging that it has bolstered her career. “I’ve realized that a lot of what we do [inside academia] is interesting and relevant to wide sections of the population,” she says. “If it just ends up in dusty journals that six people read, who cares?”

Meredith Dault manages ExpertWomen.ca/FemmesExpertes.ca, which launches this fall. Informed Opinions is now accepting applications for inclusion in the database. For more information contact meredith@informedopinions.org.

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  1. Jennifer Polk / September 7, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks for this! Great work. I’d love to do formal media training at some point. I don’t work as a professor, but certainly talking to the media is something I do on occasion. It is a valuable way of building credibility, spreading awareness of an important issue, and can lead to all sorts of unexpected, positive outcomes.

  2. Martha Radice / September 7, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Living in a small city, I found that I was often approached by various media people for interviews as I started out in my career. At one point – after a request to respond to what seemed at first glance to be a particularly silly piece of ‘news’ – I made a decision always to say yes to an interview if I possibly could, for two reasons: 1) we need more women academics to speak up as experts, as this article makes clear; 2) we need more anthropologists to speak up as experts, since it is a relatively low-profile discilpine that can contribute a great deal toward understanding cultures and societies and human beings in general.

    The corollary to both my reasons is, of course, ‘If I don’t say yes, a male economist probably will’.

    My policy was also influenced by two sociologist colleagues whose engagement with the media I much admire, Annick Germain in Montréal and Howard Ramos in Halifax. They also say yes, and make important contributions to societal debates in their regions.

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