In that “Binders Full of Women” program we did, we learned some of the reasons why it’s so hard to find female guests. 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. And unfortunately, it’s the same for foreign affairs, politicians, the sciences, labour issues, and the list goes on. The vast majority of “experts” in the subjects we cover are men.

But we’ve also discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book. 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.

No man will say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, my roots are showing.” I’m serious. We get that as an excuse for not coming on. But only from women.

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. And worse, they often recommend a male colleague in their place.

Steve Paikin, “Where, Oh Where, Are All the Female Guests?

People are (fairly) critiquing Paikin’s language in his blog post. In particular, his comment that “we’ve also discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book” is drawing significant ire.

At this point I’ve given hundreds of interviews to journalists from all mediums, and from all over the world. What I’ve learned is that it is critical to simply be direct with a producer (who is often who you’ll be initially speaking with) to suggest how you could contribute to a given piece. A significant element of the interview process is the producer ascertaining if you’re a good ‘fit’ for the medium, if you have something interesting to contribute, and how to shape the story in question. Sometimes you’ll run into a producer who is very explicit about what they want: the narrative has been arranged before to speaking with you and you’re unlikely to change what’s in place very much. Other times you can shape the story as an expert.

I don’t know precisely how TVO tends to generally develop their stories, but in my very anecdotal experiences producers have tended to come with pretty specific stories or narratives in mind and are unable to significantly re-structure the discussion based on my input. The result has been that despite my willingness to do what Paikin suggests – do some side research to get caught up on the specifics of a topic that’s in my field of study – it’s often the case that I cannot ‘fit’. It may just be that I’ve always been a tertiary possible guest (as opposed to the headliner person(s) who might be more successful in shaping the story), or something common with how TVO conducts their operations. I don’t know.

In general, people are sometimes reluctant to deal with the media because the production timelines tend to be compact (e.g. get called in the morning, to appear on live television a few hours later and often with the guest incurring travel or child-care expenses) and people who aren’t used to – or don’t want to accommodate – this kind of chaos and expense might justifiably refuse to participate. Given that women in the workforce are routinely underpaid and expected to engage in equivalent or greater degrees of ‘productive’ work than their male counterparts, there is very practical workplace (to say nothing of home care duty) rationales for waiving off media interviews that have little to no clear benefit, and piles of possible downsides.

If TVO really wants to improve their female guest selection they should simply refuse to run shows where they cannot book at least X% female guests. And then do aggressive outreach with the employers of the women whom they want to have on the show: prove to employers that being on the show matters so that employers free up their female employees to speak on a given topic. It’s not enough to just target high-qualified women, you also have to ensure that the structures limiting their participation are also actively engaged and alleviated. Expecting women to just behave like men both ignores the contributions women can provide (i.e. they’re not men!) and the challenges that women have to overcome on a daily basis as compared to their male counterparts. Paikin should know that, and I suspect he does, but the tone of the post almost entirely devoid of such sensitivities.

In the interests of disclosure: I’ve been interviewed as a possible person to appear on The Agenda a few times, though never ultimately been selected to appear. The Agenda is one of the very few show’s I’ve actively watched for years, and I really really like it and generally respect Paikin and the entire crew. And I routinely suggest female colleagues that TVO (and other journalistic mediums) should speak with. I don’t know the ‘success’ rate of booking those colleagues.

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