Much has been made over the lack of women’s bylines in the opinion pages, but what about the number of women pontificators? We talk to Informed Opinions founder Shari Graydon about the dearth of women experts, the elusive “female voice”, and why we should care.

Much has been made over the lack of women’s bylines in the opinion pages, but what about the number of women pontificators? We talk to Informed Opinions founder Shari Graydon about the dearth of women experts, the elusive “female voice”, and why we should care.

J-Source: Tell me more about why you started Informed Opinions. What finally pushed you to do it?            

Shari Graydon: Partly we were inspired by the success of a similar initiative in the US called the Op Ed Project, but mostly we just couldn’t bear that in 2011, women’s perspectives are still missing in action. Women make up 61% of university grads, have made significant inroads into all sorts of traditionally-male arenas, and sometimes have a markedly different take on the world by virtue of our experiences. But the experts who are quoted or featured in dominant news media remain overwhelmingly male. On the comment pages of big market dailies and on the highest profile talk shows, the male to female ratio is often four-to-one.         

Here’s why Canadians should care: sources whose ideas are featured in our public discourse have a huge influence on society’s policies and priorities. Their analyses and attitudes, their perspectives and priorities help to shape the direction of public policy and how governments spend our tax dollars. But women’s experiences and priorities ; on a whole range of issues, from the economy and the environment to social justice and health care; are often different. And the absence of their perspectives is a problem that affects not just women, but families, children, men; and society as a whole.

J-Source: As your website states, women make up 52 per cent of the population but only 20 per cent of the pontificators. What does the absence of women’s voices mean for media consumers? In other words, what are we missing out on?                   

SG: Where to start?! The truth is we can’t know for sure. How do you measure what’s not there? But just as it doesn’t make sense for a company to draw on only half of the potential talent, so it doesn’t make sense for the public discourse to feature the intelligence of only half of the population.              

A growing body of business and international research makes clear that innovation, productivity, profitability, accountability and quality of life are all positively affected by the inclusion of more women at decision-making levels; that’s so in small businesses, major corporations and countries of all sizes.                      

And anecdotally, I can tell you that many of the subjects that women in our workshops identify as being important to them, as things that they have informed opinions on and would like to provide context for, are issues that rarely get covered in the news media. They have valuable perspectives on everything from assisted suicide, alternative energy and societal violence to organ donation, homelessness and tax policy. Issues that affect all of us in significant ways.              

And although women’s perspectives are as diverse as their male counterparts, their views are influenced by life experience that is sometimes qualitatively different; because of their biological make-up, their social roles, the way they are viewed and treated by a world that still mostly imagines that either men, in general, or one single woman, can effectively represent them.                            

J-Source:Why is this happening?                   

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SG: Journalists are always on deadline and so turning to established sources is often the easiest and fastest thing to do. But some women; even those with demonstrated, relevant expertise; sometimes turn down the kind of interview requests that their male colleagues are happy to accept. Our research; bolstered by studies elsewhere; has found that in general, women experience more family-related time constraints, are less eager to seek the spotlight, more inclined to defer to others, reluctant to become the target of backlash (which many have experienced) and don’t see media commentary as a priority given the other demands they face.              

Journalists tell us that potential female sources often respond to an interview request by saying, “I’m not really the best person”, but that those words never come from men’s mouths! This isn’t because all men think they are the best source, but because they focus less on the fact that others may know more, and more on the fact that their opinion is more informed than the readers, listeners or viewers of the news media in question.         

It’s also regrettably true that the famous line of one-time Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton (“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good”) reflects a persistent imbalance in the way we sometimes judge women’s performance. And so female experts, who are consciously or unconsciously aware of that, hold themselves to a higher standard of expertise than male experts do.                      

J-Source: When this controversy first hit the spotlight, some wondered if there was even such thing as a women’s voice — say, as opposed to a writer’s voice, or an expert’s voice. What do you say to this?                   

SG:Women’s perspectives are as diverse as men’s perspectives. The problem is not that we’re missing some singular mythical “woman’s voice”, but that we’re missing many, many women’s voices. We’re relying on the experience-informed opinions of one societal group to the exclusion of the experience-informed opinions of another.              

Here’s a story that dramatically encapsulates what a difference that can make: My husband and I were approached by a TV crew the day the pope died and asked to comment. I declined, but my husband was happy to respond. His simple comment “It’s a very sad day for Catholics everywhere” was a nice expression of sympathy. But my response; had I chosen to share it; was to wish that the next pope might join the 21st     century and implement a new policy on contraception that would free millions of impoverished women around the globe from the slavery of unplanned pregnancy, childbirth and childcare!             

Clearly, my perspective is influenced by my decades of experience having to think about and plan around the potential consequences to my physical, economic and social well-being of becoming pregnant. But because I didn’t speak up, the provocative, interesting and important context I could have offered didn’t make it into the newscast. I’m convinced that hundreds of stories every day could be made more compelling and more relevant to a broader range of news consumers if they included more diverse voices.                       

J-Source: What can media do to tip the gender expert imbalance?                   

SG: Reporters, producers and editors have enormous capacity to ensure their audiences have access to more representative perspectives. In the process, they would enrich their content immeasurably. By going beyond the “usual suspects” by actively seeking out voices that haven’t been heard from, by soliciting the perspective of people who may well experience; and therefore interpret; some aspects of the issue differently.          Informed Opinions is building a database of women who are expert in their fields, who now have a greater appreciation of the impact they can have on helping to balance public discourse and who have expressed a willingness to say “yes” to media interview requests more often.         

Beyond that, however, journalists can remind potential female sources that if they decline to provide their experience-informed analysis and context, women’s perspectives and priorities will continue to have much less influence on the decisions being made on; about climate change, about criminal justice, about day care policies, about any and all things that they care about.