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IN MY OPINION

Women need to participate more in public discourse

Why are they missing in action?

By SHARI GRAYDON | DEC 06 2010

Writing my master’s thesis during the mid-1990s while I also was writing a regular column for the Vancouver Sun offered an exercise in stark contrast. Each week I added several thousand words, complete with exhaustively footnoted references and the requisite jargon, to my academic opus. It took me most of four months, topped out at 120 pages, and had a guaranteed readership of exactly three: those whose job it was to say yea or nay to my sought-after credential. Each weekend, I crafted a pointed, accessible 720-word argument that had to engage as well as inform, as it competed for readers from a potential audience of 250,000. Some of them were likely to write or call me with impassioned responses, and surprisingly often the feedback I received suggested I’d had an impact.

I’ve thought of this contrast often in the past six months while leading Informed Opinions, a project designed to support scholars, especially women, in contributing their expertise to the public discourse. The initiative recognizes both the long-standing under-representation of women’s perspectives in society’s most influential information media and the growing appreciation across all sectors of the benefits that flow from incorporating more diverse viewpoints.

Building on studies conducted by Media Action in the 1990s and by some McMaster University researchers last year, we monitored a week’s worth of commentary in six major-market Canadian dailies this spring. Women’s perspectives made up just 16 percent of the 113 op-ed authors. The single largest professional group of contributors was scholars, writing 31 percent of all commentaries. Once again, however, female academics were under-represented, comprising only 14 percent.

This is a problem – not just for women, but for all Canadians. A growing body of research has documented that organizations and countries making the most effective use of women’s contributions are more competitive and experience a higher quality of life. So Canada’s economic, social and cultural success depends on women’s full participation in the broadest possible range of issues – from climate change, healthcare and technological innovation to foreign affairs, education and financial policy.

Expert commentary in mainstream media influences the public policy agenda. And, because women also remain under-represented in government, their perspectives and priorities are less likely to be reflected in the decisions being made on our behalf. This absence denies Canada access to the analysis and ideas of many of its best and brightest.

That’s because the dearth of news media commentary by women doesn’t reflect a lack of relevant expertise. University faculties are, on average, 40 percent female. Canadian women are contributing at senior levels in all fields and disciplines. Many boast in-depth knowledge, an ability to connect on both intellectual and emotional levels, and a bias for solutions.

Yet reporters and talk show producers tell us that getting women to agree to be interviewed is often like pulling teeth. Op-ed editors confirm the trend, noting that the ratio of male-to-female perspectives on their pages reflects the ratio of submissions received.

Lack of time is often an obstacle. Our informal survey of women experts in all sectors found that many are reluctant to invest hours in providing media commentary, especially on spec, given the competing demands of professional, home and volunteer duties. Male faculty members also cite time constraints, but I encountered another issue when attempting to recruit women experts, mainly scholars, to be listed in a directory for journalists. A depressingly large number demurred. Over and over again I heard, “I’m really not the best person.” Journalists say their male sources rarely confess this.

My own experiences as a columnist, occasional op-ed writer and broadcast commentator permit me to provide context, challenge prejudice, shift attitudes and help change policies. Informed Opinions is designed to support other women in exerting such influence. Given the push by funding councils to demonstrate the relevance of research, the project couldn’t be more timely.

The workshops we’ve delivered to date – coaching scholars to share their expertise, identify opportunities, make their knowledge relevant and accessible, and engage actively and efficiently in public discourse – have started to bear results. The immediacy of impact is a great complement to the longer-term, and sometimes less tangible, rewards of scholarly work.

Shari Graydon is an award-winning author and activist and the catalyst for Informed Opinions. More details about the project are available at www.informedopinions.org.

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