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Speaking out – Women academics (not) in the media

Research in Canada has revealed that although women make up a growing proportion of the academy, including in senior positions, men’s voices still outnumber women’s in the media by four to one. Women scholars are being trained to raise their public presence in a project that has wider implications for higher education and the media.

Shari Graydon told the Worldviews 2013 conference held at the University of Toronto from 19-21 June that the mandate of the non-profit social enterprise Informed Opinions, which she founded in Canada, was to help bridge the gender gap in discourse.

“We are explicitly looking at media representation of women experts.”

Academics were the group in society called on most often to offer comment on issues of the day, she told a session on “Majority in Enrolment, Minority in Leadership”. Other panellists were Professor Teboho Moja and researcher Zukiswa Kekana of New York University, and Katherine Forestier, director of Education Link in Hong Kong.

Canadian data gathered over three years, looking at the ratio of male to female voices in op-ed and commentary pages in major daily newspapers and on influential radio and television public affairs talk shows, had revealed vast disparities.

“On one level that’s not so surprising,” Graydon said. In proportion to their numbers, women academics were underrepresented even in the expert databases of their universities. Furthermore: “They are often unwilling to come forward.” There were also pressures on women’s time, which needed to be divided between work and, for instance, family responsibilities.

But the problem went deeper. What Graydon had been told by journalists – and this had been borne out by interviews with and surveys of 400 female scholars across Canada – was that when approached for comment on an issue, women were far more likely than their male counterparts to say: “I’m really not the best person.”

“The truth is that male scholars may also feel pressures, may not feel that they are the best person to respond to a particular journalist’s question. But a male expert will rarely if ever say the words, ‘I’m not the best person’,” said Graydon.

“Not because he always thinks that he is, but because he knows that he knows more than the majority of readers or listeners or viewers and, yes, he has a PhD, he has 10 years’ experience in the field, and yes, of course he will comment.”

Both male and female scholars were understandably worried about their words being taken out of context, Graydon added. “They are all concerned about not being able to put complex, nuanced issues into quotable sound bites. They are concerned about being seen as not serious, as doing scholarship that is not popular – all of those things affect men as well.”

However, female scholars were subjected to what Graydon called a “gender push-back” that men do not experience. Operating in a space where they are judged against “graphically and surgically enhanced images of women”, women scholars were judged and found wanting, even if only on a subconscious level.

Frequently, the feedback in online comments was “specific and vicious, and often women scholars are just not willing to go there and subject themselves to that kind of attack”.

Informed Opinions, which built on a successful initiative in the United States called the Op-Ed Project, works with universities in Canada to overcome women’s reluctance to step forward, Graydon noted. “We encourage them when they get a phone call from a journalist to start here: ‘I’d be happy to try to help’.”

“Because there is nothing about this statement that says I believe I am the best person; it just opens the door to a conversation in which they may be able to add value.” Women academics are encouraged and helped to write op-ed articles for newspapers.

This, said Graydon, is “the gateway rung to media engagement. Because if you’re afraid to go into a broadcast situation because your words will be taken out of context – microphones in your face, you haven’t had your hair and make-up done – writing a newspaper commentary is a very safe, controlled situation.

“You have time to reflect, you get to frame the argument and choose the words. And then once you’re out there, in the paper, you’re getting feedback, then you’re much more likely to embrace a broadcast interview because you’ve already framed the debate.”

Women who have been trained by Informed Opinions have the op-eds they have written placed on the organisation’s website, “so that it is available in perpetuity. We tweet about it to give them a profile and expand the audience.” There is also an experts database that makes it easier for journalists to find women who are experts.

The most powerful argument for such training, Graydon told the conference, lay in the kinds of issues raised when the voices of women scholars were heard in public, “because of the things that get prioritised as a result of their presence in the public discourse”.

The media had been receptive to the initiative, she added, as journalists were increasingly attempting to better reflect their audiences by presenting more diverse perspectives, “not just with women but also with racial minorities”.

Later during the conference, when ways of higher education and the media engaging were being discussed, Informed Opinions was suggested as a way in which institutions might go about training all academics – not just women – to build a public presence and disseminate research.
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