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Speculative Diction

Break the binders – Gender, media, & women’s “choices”


On March 16, Steve Paikin – the host of the TVOntario’s popular current affairs show “The Agenda” – shared a blog post titled “Where are all the female guests?”. In it, he expressed concern about the ongoing lack of gender parity among the show’s guests, which has led to male-dominated panel discussions. The main question Paikin poses is, “Why, oh why, do we have such a tough time getting female guests on our program?”

I’m always happy to see a discussion about women’s (lack of) representation among “experts” in the media. But as Kirstine Stewart of Twitter Canada commented: “[I] Was hopeful. Then I read the blog.” In it, Paikin takes an opportunity that could have been used to ask deeper questions about the gendered nature of expertise (for example) – and turns it into a throw-up-your-hands, stereotype-reinforcing missive on the “excuses” women make for not wanting to heed the call and appear on a TV show. Indeed, the post answers its own question so well that it would have worked better as satire, but no such luck.

In spite (or in fact because) of its defensively self-righteous tone, Paikin’s piece points us to something important in the rhetoric about women’s lack of visibility as experts in the media and elsewhere: the focus is usually on women’s choices, and/or on their inherent merit as experts. We then see at least two “logical” explanations for women’s relative absence from the highest positions in our institutional and social hierarchies: either they made choices that weren’t conducive to the pursuit of high-impact careers, or they simply lacked the merit to pursue those careers. Then again according to Paikin, it might just be a genetic flaw: “we’ve […] discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book.”

Let’s take a look at the “choices” women make that cause Paikin and his TVO colleagues so much difficulty.

First, Paikin argues that “no man will ever say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, I’m taking care of my kids.” The man will find someone to take care of his kids so he can appear on a TV show.  Women use that excuse on us all the time” (emphasis added). So apparently, we can comfortably ignore the entrenched, gendered inequalities in domestic work and especially in child care. While it’s true that men have been taking on more parenting responsibilities over time, the ongoing, underlying assumption – a systemic one, as described in this excellent post by Sarah Mann – is that women are responsible for child care. So given the logistics involved, as well as cultural and relational pressures and expectations, how can this be described as an “excuse”?

The post continues: “No man will say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, my roots are showing.” I’m serious. We get that as an excuse […] But only from women.” The glaring omission here? There’s no mention of the way that women politicians, journalists, activists, professors, and other public figures are subjected to public judgement based on their looks (and sexuality), as opposed to the work they do. This is what Sarah Mann describes as a “steaming pile of double standards related to beauty”, and it’s pervasive. One recent example is that of  British scholar Mary Beard, who has faced much commentary on her looks and was a target for misogynistic abuse after she commented on immigration issues. Beard said the experience “would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate.” If that’s not serious, then what is?

Paikin also states: “No man will say, “Sorry can’t do your show tonight, I’m not an expert in that particular aspect of the story.” They’ll get up to speed on the issue and come on. Women beg off.” Research has indeed indicated that women are less keen to speak to an area beyond their immediate expertise, but that might have something to do with the way women’s expertise is constantly questioned and challenged in overt and irrelevant ways (for example…by criticizing their looks). Of course, even if you are a female expert, you can still be dismissed as a “token” presence. That’s what happened to scientists Hiranya Peiris and Maggie Aderin-Pocock after they appeared as a guests on a TV show discussing a crucial new development in astrophysics.

Speaking of physics, there’s yet another issue here for “The Agenda”, which is that there aren’t enough women experts in the areas being discussed. For example, “if we’re doing a debate on economics, 90% of economists are men. So already you’re fishing in a lake where the odds are stacked against you.” So how about having a discussion about why women continue to pursue certain careers (and academic areas) rather than others – or why those careers so often involve lower-status, lower-wage, and/or precarious employment?

This is probably familiar territory for anyone who’s aware of the lack of women in the STEM disciplines. And the same issue is reflected within academe more broadly: women may be more visible at lower levels in the professional hierarchy, but there are too few rising to the highest positions of leadership. Women still face everyday sexism in the workplace, and the “outcomes” they achieve (or don’t achieve) are affected by a long process involving both overt and unconscious discrimination in practice. Gender also intersects and interacts with other factors such as race, age, social class, sexuality, and disability. So how much does this experience affect a person’s “merit”, and how might it dampen their enthusiasm, or reduce their opportunities for being a public expert?

Paikin’s post frames women’s “excuses” from not appearing on the show as individual choices that prevent “The Agenda” from providing a gender balance among the show’s guests. What this approach ignores is the context in which those choices are made. As Jeet Heer noted on Twitter, this “is a classic example of taking real social/structural problems and personalizing them as character flaws.” The reasons that women themselves provide are dismissed as trivial: “despite our commitment, despite our efforts, despite EVERYTHING…we get the same old excuses.”

Paikin also responded to one critic, “[I] never told anyone to “man up.” the whole damned post is about finding solutions.” But what other message are we likely to receive when we see a litany of comparison in which “no man would ever” is the refrain? One where acting like a man (as if all men act the same way!) is clearly the preferred strategy, and where men are held up as the standard against which women’s actions and decisions are assessed? What solutions are we likely to come up with, based on these assumptions – other than “man up”?

It’s not that Paikin is wrong to point out a gender gap – of course not. This isn’t about whether he and his colleagues are “trying hard enough” or not; and I’ve tried to explain here, it’s about the way the problem’s being framed. Paikin’s arguments just can’t get past the descriptive notion of “choices” to the point of addressing the structural and cultural issues that inform them. We need to go beyond the argument that “women just don’t like the attention”, that they “just aren’t confident enough”. The question is not what do women say, but why are they still saying it? The Agenda would be a great platform for that discussion and based on the Twitter reaction to Paikin’s comments, there are plenty of women who’d be willing to step up and participate. Now let’s see if they’re invited.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Janice Liedl / April 9, 2014 at 12:10

    A common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Paikin illustrates this aptly – he and the staff on The Agenda are recruiting experts in the same fashion yet can’t understand why this doesn’t yield more women.

    You’ve noted a lot of systemic issues in women’s lives (family responsibilities, attacks based on personal appearance, etc.) that TVO’s staffers should examine carefully. It’s not enough to say that “more women need to step up”. Paikin and his staff need to examine how their age-old techniques of guest identification and recruitment aren’t working in the best interests of the show.

    Next time you’re up here to preside at convocation, Chancellor Paikin, I invite you to meet with Laurentian faculty and brainstorm some of these challenges with us!

  2. Shari Graydon / April 9, 2014 at 15:46

    Great to see continued thoughtful analysis of the many critical issues underlying the surface symptoms decried by Steve Paikin in his ill-considered blog. In fact, to its credit, The Agenda did invite on six of the many women who responded with outrage to his intemperate remarks on Twitter, broadcasting a program on March 19th that explored some of the issues. The resulting conversation was still framed too narrowly, however, and failed to address many of the related nuances that beg to be explored. (Definition of news, for example, and expert, for that matter…!)

    • Melonie Fullick / April 10, 2014 at 06:23

      Thanks very much Shari. I’ll have to check that out – I didn’t see anyone post the episode anywhere so I’m hoping it’s online. I’m glad they responded more quickly than I did 😉

      Another thing I didn’t get into in my post was that idea of the “expert” and how it relates to the ongoing debate about “public intellectuals”. There’s a conference happening on that specific subject later this year I think. I wrote a blog post about it but didn’t focus on gender:

  3. Brian Bailey / April 25, 2014 at 09:20

    Sorry but this still sounds like a bunch of excuses about the initial excuses. If women continue to give in to the stereotypes then how can one expect anything to change for them? They will have to fight for the change they desire – no one ever said it would be easy. Just ask African-Americans…and yet Obama has now been elected President – Twice!

    • Marianne / April 30, 2014 at 12:05

      Brian, I am baffled by your comment which puts the blame on women and ignores the social inequities that are a product of our patriarchal society. This article is spot-on in explaning the under-representation of women and the “excuses” that are meant to hide the larger context.

      Women and their allies ARE fighting for equality but that does not remove them from their socio-political context. To be a woman in the public eye is very challenging and demoralizing. There has been a myriad of attention on these issues lately, so I invite you to read up.

      You compare this situation to the plight of African-Americans in being recognized as equals. Racism is still a current fight, one that is and should be fought by people of all races. I see this situation as no different. I will turn your question around: If society, regardless of its citizens’ genders, continues to believe and enforce gender stereotypes, how can one expect anything to change?

  4. Baffled as well / May 2, 2014 at 10:56

    The last time I was asked to be interviewed about an area for which I had little expertise, and politely turned them down, they ended up going with a (male) colleague who also had little expertise but decided to try to “brush up” before the interview. He ended up looking and sounding like a jackass, not an expert, and that doesn’t help anyone. We are doing a disservice to the whole professoriate if we pretend to be experts in areas in which we are not! The audience can see through that and dismisses academics as a bunch of pompous idiots (which, if you’re posing as an expert in an area for which you lack expertise, you probably are!).

  5. Emily / May 30, 2014 at 10:10

    As a woman, I am really sick of this discussion. There are social pressures that come at us from all angles, obviously. At some point we need to take responsibility for ourselves. As one example, these women who don’t want to appear on the show because “their roots are showing,” are idiots, frankly. They are letting these stereotypes control them. Sure, it may be the misogynistic media demons that shape our fears of being seen with half an inch of natural hair, but it is our fault if we let this control our actions and influence our choices. Flawed expectations exist for all groups, be it gender, race, religion, sexuality…etc. The only way to overcome this is to get over it. Bullying stops being fun when the person you’re bullying is not affected anymore. This is not to put down the progress women have made thus far. With great effort we’ve reached a point where we can think and speak for ourselves and not be stoned to death (at least in Canada – much work to be done elsewhere). It’s time to stop blaming everyone else. I like my hair to look good, but I would never even consider a bad hair day as a reason not to do anything. Men have pressure to look a certain way and act in certain ways just as women do. I’d actually hate to be a man and have the pressure to do all the “manly” things “men” need to do to be “men”. I am university educated, completed a post-grad, and have a full-time career, but if I had it my way I would much rather spend more time at home with my family and friends, than worry about any career. It is not outrageous to suggest that perhaps there truly is something in our genetics that makes us the way we are in this sense. Men and women are very different and always will be, so let’s stop obsessing about being the same. Be who you want to be. Man, woman, beast?