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.)