“No matter how qualified,
women are far more likely
than men to turn down
À mon avis
In my opinion
In the news
We need more women
academics as experts
by Meredith Dault
Meredith Dault manages
ExpertWomen.ca/FemmesEx-pertes.ca at Informed Opinions.
She is an award-winning writer,
former reporter and producer
with CBC Radio and served as
senior communications officer
at Queen’s University.
hen 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.
Nevertheless, 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. 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 who are critical of pop
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. 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.
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 institu-
tions, 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
Informed Opinions 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.
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 out as experts are time-
strapped, 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 are not.
The other issue is our increasingly fast-paced,
24-hour news cycle. “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.
That’s one of the reasons we’re now building
Expert Women.ca/FemmesExpertes.ca, a data-
base of qualified Canadian women from a range
of backgrounds who are willing to make them-
selves 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.
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