Sat, 12/20/2014 - 16:37

Posted by Belinda Alzner on November 30, 2012

When Mitt Romney made his now-infamous “binders full of women” comment during the second U.S. Presidential debate back in October, the Internet latched on. As with most viral things these days, Twitter exploded, a tumblr was quickly created, and memes were born.

As controversial as his comment turned out to be, it prompted TVO’s flagship current affairs program, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, to take pause when a viewer left a voicemail after the show’s segment on Romney’s comments asking: “I'm seeing the same old tired white men on your show. ... Why are there no younger people or young people of colour? Why is it always old white guys and Janice Stein?” (Stein is the Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.)

“I wasn't entirely pleased with the optics of the program, either,” producer Mary Taws responded to the viewer in a subsequent phone call, as she explains in this blog post. “Although the guests were qualified and had very interesting insights to share, it wasn't ideal to have four white men discussing the GOP's relationship with the Hispanic and African-American communities, or for that matter pontificating about why and how women vote.”

Research by Informed Opinions has analyzed female appearances in the media and found that women are underrepresented in terms of sheer numbers. (Screenshots taken from a segment of The Agenda in which these numbers were discussed.)

But in at least The Agenda’s case, as Taws continued in her blog post, it isn't that the program fails to make an effort to include women in their segments, it was that there is a genuine difficulty booking female guests. In Taws’ experience, the response she most often receives from women who turn down appearance requests is: “I’m not sure I’m the right person for this.” In addition to this, there are a number of other challenges she noted, all of which can be found in her post.

Producers of the TVO program along with host Steve Paikin continued to discuss this issue. Taws published a subsequent blog post that rounded up the reaction she received, revealing other chase producers were familiar with the challenges Taws identified. TVO aired a web-only broadcast in which five producers sat down with Paikin to expand on these issues.

All-male panels aren’t for a lack of producer effort, they all agreed. “For most of your shows, you’re booking experts,” said Meredith Martin, an associate producer for The Agenda. “Are 50 per cent of the experts in any particular field women? And most of the time, the answer to that is no.” (StatsCan provides labour data, which can be broken down by gender.)

While gender and diversity are always on producer Sandra Gionas’s mind when putting together a panel, it’s not her starting point. “My starting point is ideological differences so that the panel of views are well-represented.”

“It’s got to be a debate,” Paikin noted.

Gionas agreed, and continued: “Second to that is women.” And while she doesn’t feel good when she’s booked a show consisting of all male guests, “if I were to put more emphasis in putting women on the show and that was my first consideration, it would feel like tokenism.”

The Agenda culminated the conversation in a broadcast aired Wednesday night on the issue of gender representation in the media and public discourse. Or, as the title of the broadcast put it: “Are ‘binders full of women’ needed?

The panel consisted of Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star; Shari Graydon, founder of Informed Opinions, who presented the data on the underrepresentation of women; Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto; and Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The segment runs just under an hour but is worth watching in full. The panelists discussed the validity of the challenges as identified by Taws and the The Agenda producers before moving into the reasons behind them and the differences in motivation that drive men and women.

Toward the end of the broadcast, the question was raised: Is there actually a barrier for women when it comes to participating in media? Paikin presented viewer Ginny Movat’s perspective as she tweeted to producer Allison Buchan-Terrell after Taws’ initial blog post. “If more women wanted to participate in media, they would. … Maybe [it’s for] the same reason fewer participate in politics, engineering, etc. [It’s a] lack of interest. So why create a problem where there isn’t one? If they don’t want on, they don’t want on,” Movat wrote.

Shari Graydon said this is the reason she leads Informed Opinions. “If we [women] want to be at the decision-making table in our society; if we want our priorities and realities to be reflected, we need to step up to the plate.”

“We need to stop saying ‘I’m not the best person.’” 

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.